UN backs revised sanctions to blunt criticism on Iraq

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The UN Security Council approved a revised sanctions regime for Iraq yesterday that is designed to ease the flow of humanitarian goods into the country and blunt criticism that western governments have unnecessarily contributed to the suffering of the Iraqi population.

Devised originally by Britain and the United States, the new arrangement also aims to tighten the ban on all military hardware Iraq might want to import and strengthen the monitoring of 'dual-use' goods that could conceivably be used by Baghdad to build weapons.

The resolution, approved unanimously, amounts to the most radical overhaul of the 'Oil-for-Food' programme first introduced by the UN in 1996, which allows Iraq to use revenues from exports of oil to fund the purchase of humanitarian goods on world markets.

Both London and Washington have long been anxious to answer critics who said the poverty suffered by the Iraqi people was primarily the result of sanctions imposed after Saddam invaded Kuwait. There was concern in both capitals that Saddam was winning the propaganda war.

Jack Straw, the foreign secretary, said in London yesterday the initiative "removes Saddam's spurious excuses for the suffering he inflicts on the Iraqi people and puts more pressure on the regime." The US Ambassador to the UN, John Negroponte, said after the vote: "It will facilitate greatly the movement of humanitarian and purely civilian goods to the Iraqi economy."

Iraq's representative at the United Nations, Mohammad Al-Douri, rejected the new scheme.

Iraq continues to insist all sanctions should be lifted, while the UN says they will only end when its inspectors are allowed to return and satisfy themselves that Saddam is no longer seeking to develop weapons of mass destruction.

In recent weeks, there have been signs of Baghdad softening its opposition to a return of the inspectors, notably following talks two weeks ago between Iraqi officials and the UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, in New York. The last teams of inspectors were removed from Iraq just before a US-UK bombing campaign in December 1998 and have not been allowed back.

Under the new arrangement, Iraqi can freely import all goods except those included on a special list of items that are still considered sensitive. The list, which forms part of yesterday's resolution, was only finalised after months of painstaking negotiations, that pitted Russia, which is generally sympathetic towards Baghdad, against the Americans and the British.

Mr Al-Douri decried the so-called goods review list, saying it would "prevent any development of the Iraqi economy for the future" by still having the effect of blocking imports of agricultural, electrical and sanitation equipment. "This is a new harassment of the Iraqi people," he said.

The Council vote was delayed for 24 hours after Syria attempted to attach last-minute amendments, including one that stressed Iraq's right to self-defence – an apparent reference to Washington's recent warnings that it may launch military strikes to oust Saddam. In the end, however, Syria decided to join the consensus approving the plan.

It meant that yesterday's decision gave the Council the chance to speak with one voice on the question of Iraq. For years, the veto-wielding players have been plagued by divisions, with Britain and American leading hardliners and France, Russia and China taking a more emollient approach towards Baghdad.