BRITAIN proposes first significant easing of U.N. sanctions against Iraq

Thursday, May 17th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

UNITED NATIONS (AP) _ In a major policy shift expected to get U.S. backing, Britain has proposed lifting U.N. sanctions on civilian goods entering Iraq but toughening enforcement of the decade-old arms embargo against Saddam Hussein's government.

In editorials written before British officials spoke about the proposal, Iraqi newspapers rejected the suggested changes. The Al-Qaddissiya newspaper ruled out any U.N. resolution that ``America tries to pass under any pretext.''

The British proposal, which is being incorporated into a Security Council resolution, was developed in consultation with Washington and is part of a broader review of Iraq policy by both countries, a British official said Wednesday.

A draft will be circulated to Security Council members next week, he said. Britain has received positive responses from the three other council members with veto power, France, Russia and China, and from Iraq's neighbors, he said.

But in Moscow, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ordzhonikidze said it was ``premature'' to speak of Russian support for the initiative, the Interfax news agency reported. Many questions about the plan remain unanswered, he said.

On Thursday, Secretary-General Kofi Annan expressed support for ways to alleviate burdens on the Iraqi people. ``We should support any attempts that will ease the impact of sanctions on the population and allow the people to have normal lives,'' he said.

Full sanctions will not be lifted until U.N. inspectors certify that Iraq's weapons of mass destruction have been destroyed. For nearly 2 1/2 years, Baghdad has barred inspectors.

If approved by the Security Council, the British proposal would mark the first significant easing of sanctions that have been in place since the Iraqi army invaded Kuwait in 1990.

The United States and Britain seek to prevent Iraq from reviving its weapons-building programs while ensuring that sanctions don't hurt Iraqi citizens, the British official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said talks were going on in capitals and at the United Nations.

The goal is to find a way to control Iraq's ability to buy weapons or threaten its neighbors with weapons of mass destruction, while enabling civilian goods to reach the Iraqi people, he said.

The British plan would allow all goods to enter Iraq except those on a U.N. list of military-related items, and it would allow the resumption of all commercial and cargo flights in and out of the country as long as they are inspected at the departure points, the British official said.

At the same time, the proposal seeks to restrict Iraq's ability to rebuild its military arsenal by tightening border controls and cracking down on illegal oil sales, the official said.

In its front-page editorial Thursday, Al-Qaddissiya wrote Iraq will ``move on the path of breaking the chains of the embargo.''

``All Arab and other neighboring countries are duty bound to realize the dangers entailed in the American game of smart sanctions,'' it said.

Iraq's neighbors _ Turkey, Syria and Jordan _ have expressed concern about the impact of Iraqi sanctions on their economies.

Under the British plan, the United Nations will continue to maintain strict control over the billions of dollars Iraq earns annually from oil sales and will pay all suppliers of humanitarian goods to Iraq.

The Security Council initiated a program in 1996 to help Iraqis cope with sanctions by allowing oil sales as long as the money was strictly controlled by the United Nations and went primarily for food, medicine, humanitarian supplies and oil spare parts.

But there were delays in deliveries because goods entering Iraq had to go through a U.N. approval process. More than $3 billion in contracts were held up _ mainly by the United States _ because of suspicions that the items could have a military purpose.

The current six-month phase of the oil-for-food program expires June 3, and the British want their proposal incorporated into the extension of the program.

Iraq has campaigned for an end to the sanctions, saying the embargoes have perpetuated the suffering of Iraqis_ a claim that has received sympathy in many quarters. Aid officials have said child malnutrition was a serious problem.

Iraq has eroded sanctions in the last year _ resuming commercial and diplomatic ties with many countries, getting more than a dozen countries to start commercial flights to Baghdad, reopening a long-closed oil pipeline to Syria and illegally imposing a surcharge on its oil customers.