Yeltsin sends envoys to Gulf

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BORIS YELTSIN, the Russian President, was able to balance international responsibility with rigorous self-interest yesterday by dispatching envoys to mediate in the crisis between Iraq and the Gulf war Allies.

Russia's Foreign Minister, Andrei Kozyrev, uttered the carefully neutral hope that 'there will be no over-reaction'. He indicated that while Russia warned Iraq against aggression it also sought to discourage the United States from precipitate military action. Evidently to that end, the first deputy foreign minister, Igor Ivanov, left for the region with the head of the ministry's Middle East department, Viktor Posuvalyuk.

Their mission recalled the forlorn odyssey to Baghdad before the last Gulf war of the Soviet envoy Yevgeny Prima kov. It also underlined the fact that Russia's essential interests in Iraq - oil, money and non-alignment - remain unchanged.

The old Soviet Union was tied to Baghdad by a threadbare ideological unity backed up with standard Kremlin rhetoric about friendship and co-operation. Today, Russian aims in Iraq are chiefly commercial. Iraq owes Russia an estimated dollars 8bn ( pounds 5bn), mainly for arms. Like France, which is owed at least dollars 5.5bn, Russia had favoured an early relaxation of UN sanctions.

Only by rebuilding Iraqi oil production could a future Baghdad government hope to begin servicing interest on foreign debt, let alone repaying principal. It is that pragmatic consideration which had prompted both Paris and Moscow privately to urge a soft line towards Baghdad until the latest crisis.

For at least a year, French officials have been seeking to persuade their British and American counterparts that Iraq should be rebuilt and strengthened, not humbled. Their argument, fashionable within the right-wing French government, is that the real threat to Western interests will come from Iran.

Better then, argued the Quai D'Orsay, to put up with an unpleasant but resilient Iraq than to abandon the region to anarchy and fundamentalism. In the absence of Saddam Hussein, such arguments might seem persuasive.

Russia did not echo the anti-Iranian line but concentrated on steps towards recovering its money. Only this week a delegation headed by the Iraqi oil minister, Safa Hadi Jawad al-Habubi, was in Moscow to discuss joint ventures amounting to dollars 2.25bn. Russian-Iraqi trade talks had taken place and a draft agreement is believed to be ready for implementation once sanctions are lifted.

Such schemes are now likely to be put on the shelf until the present level of tension either subsides or is brought to a head. Neither Russia nor France may now be expected to back any move within the UN Security Council to ease sanctions as soon as Iraq would wish. Even if Iraqi oil exports were to resume, the amounts available would at first be limited.

'It's an exaggeration to say that if Iraq came back to the market the oil price would collapse,' said one industry analyst this week.

End of Saddam? page 18

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