Iraq scorns oil deal and jails two Americans

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Tension between the United States and Iraq escalated further yesterday after Washington condemned the Iraqis for jailing two US citizens who crossed into their territory, and Baghdad rejected proposals that would allow it to export some oil to earn revenue for humanitarian needs.

The two Americans, William Barloon and David Daliberti, both aerospace workers, were tried, convicted and sentenced to eight years each by an Iraqi court on Saturday for allegedly trespassing on to Iraqi territory on 13 March.

The sentences drew a sharp and instant rebuke from the Clinton administration.

"There is no justification whatsoever for these sentences," the White House said in a terse statement, while the State Department added that "Iraq has nothing to gain through this obvious misguided attempt to take advantage of two Americans".

Until this weekend, Washington had been hoping to keep the temperature down over the issue of its two citizens who apparently strayed on to Iraqi soil while visiting friends in the demilitarised zone between Kuwait and Iraq.

There remains something of a mystery, however, as to how they crossed the deep anti-tank ditch between the two countries without realising it.

Politicians in Washington were characterising the situation as one of hostage-taking, with some uncomfortable echoes of past US hostage crises in the Middle East.

"They're not being punished, they're being held as hostages," said a Republican commentator, Patrick Buchanan, who last week announced his candidacy for the 1996 presidential race. "I don't think we can tolerate hostage-taking."

Relations between Baghdad and Washington had already become more strained over recent weeks as the United States, with Britain, has led resistance to any lifting of the UN sanctions imposed on Iraq after its 1990 invasion of Kuwait. France and Russia, which have been more sympathetic to Iraq, were said to be puzzled by Baghdad's strategy in imprisoning the Americans, particularly as another sanctions review is due at the United Nations next month.

Britain and the United States joined, however, to propose a UN resolution to allow Iraq to export $1bn (£629m) worth of oil every 90 days on condition that the proceeds are used for humanitarian needs only, such as the purchase of medicines and other materials to reduce human suffering.

Baghdad has been consistent in opposing such a resolution, insisting instead that all the sanctions be lifted. As a new crisis over the fate of the Americans develops, that prospect hardly seems any closer.