Russia and France served notice yesterday that they would not be steamrollered into lifting United Nations sanctions against Iraq.
The leaders of the anti-war camp remain a force to be reckoned with because of their veto power within the UN Security Council.
The US President, George Bush, set the scene for weeks of negotiations on Wednesday when he called for the 12-and-a-half year old economic sanctions to be lifted. Although it must pain his administration to do so, America is obliged to go through the UN to legitimately exploit Iraq's oil revenues and to secure international recognition for the post-Saddam government that will eventually emerge in Baghdad.
Russia's Foreign Minister, Ivan Ivanov, reacted to Mr Bush's demand by retorting yesterday: "This decision cannot be automatic. It demands that conditions laid out in corresponding UN Security Council resolutions be fulfilled. For the Security Council to take this decision, we need to be certain whether Iraq has weapons of mass destruction or not."
The French President, Jacques Chirac, also hinted of the battle to come by stressing: "Now it is up to the United Nations to define the modalities of the lifting of sanctions."
Russia, backed by France, has long called for the sanctions to be lifted on the ground that Iraq no longer holds enough weapons of mass destruction to constitute a threat.
France and Russia can play the spoilers on two fronts. They can set their terms for the lifting of sanctions and, in the meantime, continue to argue over contracts for the humanitarian oil-for-food programme which is administered by the UN pending any change to the embargo.
A virtual guerrilla war is going on in the UN sanctions committee, which decides which humanitarian contracts can be honoured, with the UK and US on one side, and Russia and France on the other. The current phase of the programme runs until 12 May, at which point the Security Council will have to take an urgent decision on whether the roll the programme over for another few weeks or months or whether to bite the bullet and lift the sanctions.
Until now, it has always been the US which argued that sanctions needed to be kept in place. Now that France and Russia's views must be sought for a new UN resolution, they are likely to argue for the return of UN weapons inspectors to certify that weapons of mass destruction have been eliminated, in line with international law as enshrined in UN resolution 687. That will put them at loggerheads with the US which has already despatched a parallel team of US experts to Iraq to hunt for banned weaponry.
Under the sanctions regime that has been in place since the 1990 invasion of Kuwait, the oil embargo can only be lifted when the Council is satisfied that all weapons of mass destruction have been eliminated.
When the Council is united, it can rewrite its own decisions with hardly a backwards glance, as it did when it suspended sanctions against Libya. But with tension in the UN so high, such a scenario smacks of wishful thinking.
France and Russia, which have pushed for the UN to retain a central post-war role in Iraq, may use the opportunity to address the post-war situation, and to push for a resolution authorising the UN to rule the country through a special representative, as happened in Kosovo and East Timor.
The US Ambassador to the UN, John Negroponte, said officials in Washington are still discussing the specifics of lifting sanctions. "We visualise some kind of a step-by-step procedure with respect to post-conflict resolutions," he said. "Certainly one of the issues we're going to have to deal with early on is sanctions."
France and Russia also have financial considerations to be settled, stemming from Iraq's pre-war debt to them which runs into billions of dollars.
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