US set to win on Iraq embargo

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The United States appears to have won its argument against any move to ease sanctions on Iraq when the United Nations Security Council reviews the issue next week.

The result has emerged after private discussions among Security Council members. It is likely to raise tension inside Iraq: yesterday there were confused reports of government troop movements and sporadic fighting against Kurdish and Shia insurgents, coupled with rumours of instability in the Iraqi capital. The official Iraqi media described the reports as part of "a feverish US campaign ... for the unjustified blockade imposed on Iraq".

The US, backed by Britain, had argued it was not the right time to relax pressure on Iraq's leader, Saddam Hussein. But France and Russia, both of which wish to recover substantial commercial debts from Baghdad, favoured easing economic sanctions. France this week opened a "diplomatic office" in Baghdad, a move hailed by the regime as proof of Iraq's "return to its natural position among world nations".

But the US ambassador to the UN, Madeleine Albright, lobbied the Security Council with intelligence material and satellite data showing that Iraq continued to direct scarce resources towards its military and security apparatus. It now seems certain the Council will leave the sanctions unchanged at the review on Monday.

Next month a report by Rolf Ekeus, the UN official charged with inspecting Iraqi disarmament, is expected to strike a negative tone, deferring any initiative to lift sanctions until May.

Pressure on President Saddam's regime has spurred his opponents in north and south Iraq to renew their violent campaign for his overthrow. "The Iraqi people's battle against the fascist dictatorship has broken out like fire in a hay stack," Kurdish rebel radio proclaimed.