Stricken Iraq set to sell oil on UN terms

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The Independent Online

Diplomatic Editor

Iraq yesterday announced that as part of plans to create "a democratic atmosphere", its executioners would no longer cut off criminals' ears. The government also told the United Nations it wanted to discuss a deal to sell $2bn (pounds 1.3bn) of oil to buy food and medicine.

The two moves were seen by some diplomats at the UN as signs of compromise in an effort to relieve the suffering of Iraq's population five years after the allied air offensive in the Gulf war destroyed the infrastructure. Latest reports from aid workers in Iraq say UN sanctions have since reduced most of its people to penury and hunger while President Saddam's clique remains in comfort.

The Justice Minister, Shabib al-Malki, yesterday said Iraq had abolished or suspended punishments such as severing ears or branding foreheads of criminals. The amputation of hands would also be stopped. "Several laws curbing the freedom of the citizens have been abolished in the light of instructions given by President Saddam Hussein for the prevalence of a democratic atmosphere in Iraq," the minister added.

The measures appeared to be a response to scathing criticism by Max van der Stoel, the special investigator, appointed by the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva. He had also criticised Iraq for refusing to alleviate the plight of its people by taking advantage of UN Security Council Resolution 986, which permits it to sell oil in exchange for humanitarian supplies purchased and delivered under UN observation.

Under its provisions, Iraq could raise $2bn for food and medicine every six months but could not use the money for weapons or soldiers' wages.

Up to now, Iraq had refused to accept the terms, claiming they amounted to an infringement of sovereignty. But the UN Secretary General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, was briefing diplomats in New York last night about new overtures from Iraq suggesting it might come to terms with a limited oil sale.

Newspapers in Baghdad reported this week that an Iraqi delegation had travelled to Egypt to discuss plans to import foodstuffs and medicines.

However, British and American diplomats at the UN are likely to lead moves for a tough line in the Security Council against any Iraqi effort to cut an oil-for-food deal outside the terms of Resolution 986. The Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz recently insisted that Iraq still found the resolution unacceptable, making it unlikely that countries such as Russia and France, which broadly favour the relaxation of sanctions, will be able to find much room to manoeuvre.

This week, the press in neighbouring Jordan carried an intriguing item suggesting that life may be difficult for Mr Aziz himself in the "democratic atmosphere" of Baghdad.

According to the reports, security men recently refused to let Mr Aziz leave Iraq with his wife and children. Officials at the frontier between Iraq and Jordan contacted President Saddam's office, which ordered that Mr Aziz could travel alone but could not take his family.

Mr Aziz has functioned for years as a loyal ally of President Saddam. But even the strongest loyalties are now being tested. An Iraqi military intelligence official, Col Shakir al-Juburi, is reported to have escaped to Jordan on a forged passport. He is the most senior intelligence officer to flee since the escape of Rafiq al-Samarrai, the former head of military intelligence, who appeared in the recent BBC series on the Gulf war.