Britain and US insist on Iraq sanctions

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The Independent Online

Diplomatic Correspondent

Britain and the United States agreed yesterday to maintain a hard line against the relaxation of sanctions on Iraq despite increasing signs of dissent by France and Russia within the United Nations Security Council and a vigorous publicity campaign by Baghdad.

Pressure to ease sanctions is mounting ahead of a regular UN review on 13 March and the latest report by the UN's arms inspector, Rolf Ekeus, who is expected to make a statement to the Security Council on Monday.

Iraqi government newspapers made great play this week of the "shaky" unity among Security Council members.

"America is cornered," said the daily Al-Iraq, while President Saddam Hussein, in poetic mood, told a cabinet meeting that "God willing, the Iraqi ship will safely sail to the other side of the river."

The regime's case was bolstered yesterday by the head of a British business delegation to Iraq, Edmund Sykes, who told the AFP news agency that "the rest of the world" was already in Baghdad, touting for a share of an estimated $150bn (£95bn) in contracts over the next decade.

Mr Sykes said Iraqi officials claimed that even American companies maintained operations in Iraq through their Far Eastern subsidiaries. Businessmen from eight countries, including France and Italy, were also in the Iraqi capital during the past fortnight.

The changing climate has prompted Madeleine Albright, the US ambassador to the United Nations, to embark on a foreign tour to drum up support. Speaking in London yesterday, she said the US was seeking "to pre-empt any attempt at the premature easing of sanctions". She said dealing with Iraq was "like the Thousand and One Nights - each time a different story".

Ms Albright met the Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, before travelling to Muscat, Kuwait, Prague and Rome. A Foreign Office spokesman said Ms Albright and Mr Hurd saw eye to eye. "Saddam Hussein remains untrustworthy," he said, "the leopard does not change his spots."

But if harmony reigns between London and Washington, there are signs that Moscow and Paris are ready to push for sanctions to be eased to permit Iraq to export oil and rebuild its economy. Ms Albright admittedthere were differences with Moscow and Paris but said "they're wrong".

The Russian and French argument is likely to encounter opposition from Arab countries and from the UN. Kuwait's foreign minister was in London this week to urge continued measures against Iraq, citing Baghdad's failure to hand back looted equipment or account for people missing after the gulf war. Kuwait is supported by most Gulf states, Egypt and Syria.

More pertinent, perhaps, are the reports by Mr Ekeus on progress towards Iraqi disarmament and by the UN's special rapporteur on human rights. Mr Ekeus concluded another mission to Baghdad last week stating that Iraq was "too slow" in providing information about its non-conventional weapons programmes. His conclusions are unlikely to lend comfort to those urging a change in policy.

Even more damning was the latest report on human rights in Iraq presented to the UN in Geneva. The rapporteur gave a stark account of continued abuses, including random executions, torture and legalised amputations. He said there was no evidence that easing sanctions would help the ordinary Iraqi people, since any profits would end up in the hands of a clique around Saddam Hussein. He concluded that there was humanitarian case for easing sanctions.