Leaders embrace Iraqi attempt to return to the fold

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Iraqi and Kuwaiti senior officials shook hands yesterday for the first time since Iraqi tanks rolled into Kuwait almost 12 years ago, in the first sign of a rapprochement between the two neighbours.

The surprise gesture between a top aide of Saddam Hussein and the Kuwaiti foreign minister came as the Arab summit welcomed an Iraqi statement promising to respect the independence, sovereignty and security of Kuwait and to avoid a repetition of the 1990 invasion.

In another symbolic move signalling support for Iraq at a time when the country is threatened with US military action aimed at overthrowing President Saddam Hussein, Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah publicly embraced the head of the Iraqi delegation, Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri. The two hugged and kissed in front of the television cameras to applause from delegates.

However, the US was unimpressed by the Iraqi promises. US State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said: "If true, that would be good, but Iraq has never evidenced any real intent to respect Kuwaiti sovereignty. It has a deplorable record of flouting its international obligations and UN Security Council resolutions," he said.

"We have to remain profoundly sceptical that Iraq would treat this agreement any differently than the many other times it has agreed to do this."

In return for its promise not to invade Kuwait again, Iraq secured strong support from the Arab summit, which rejected US military strikes.

The final communique said: "The leaders studied the threats of aggression against some Arab countries, especially Iraq, and confirmed their ultimate rejection for attacking Iraq or threatening the security and sovereignty of any Arab country since it is considered a threat to the national security of all Arab states."

However, in a boost to the US in its attempts to tighten sanctions against Iraq, Russia announced "significant progress" yesterday after the latest round of negotiations in Moscow. The two countries have been discussing a list of goods that Baghdad would be barred from importing once planned "smart sanctions" come into effect. Under the amended sanctions regime, to be authorised by a UN resolution, Iraq would be able to import freely except for the listed items that could be used for military purposes.