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Russia Not in Favor of Iraq Attack

Diplomacy: Foreign minister, meeting with Baghdad counterpart, urges more inspections.

September 03, 2002|CAROL J. WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — Russia added its voice Monday to a growing international chorus warning against a U.S. attack on Iraq, saying such action could undermine peace efforts in the Middle East and long-term security in the volatile Persian Gulf region.

In talks with his visiting Iraqi counterpart, Russian Foreign Minister Igor S. Ivanov also urged Baghdad to allow resumption of U.N. weapons inspections so that the trade sanctions that have impoverished Iraq can be lifted.

"The international community must have guarantees of nonresumption of Iraqi programs of development of weapons of mass destruction," Ivanov told journalists at a joint news conference with Foreign Minister Naji Sabri.

"We believe it is a necessary condition for the settlement of the situation and the lifting of sanctions against Iraq," Ivanov added, noting that Russian companies were poised to help the Iraqis rebuild their oil industry once the crisis is resolved.

Sabri insisted that the weapons inspections suspended nearly four years ago were "only one element" of the conflict.

He said his country must also be compensated for the "1991 aggression"--the Persian Gulf War destruction that left the economy and infrastructure in ruins after a U.S.-led coalition expelled Iraqi forces from Kuwait.

In South Africa, Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tarik Aziz said Monday that Baghdad had not ruled out a return of the inspectors--though a day earlier during an interview with CNN he had called such a step "a nonstarter."

White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer later dismissed suggestions that Aziz's comments represented a shift in Iraqi policy.

"Iraq changes positions on whether they'll let the inspectors in more often than [Iraqi President] Saddam Hussein changes bunkers," Fleischer told reporters aboard Air Force One as President Bush flew to Pittsburgh for a Labor Day appearance.

While Ivanov pushed his guest to clear the way for resumed inspections, he was equally adamant that a nonmilitary solution be found to defuse tensions between Baghdad and Washington. Bush has threatened to attack Iraq in punishment for its alleged development of biological, chemical or nuclear weapons and has declared that he wants to see an Iraqi "regime change"--the removal of Hussein from power.

"There are great and sufficient opportunities for finding a political settlement of the situation around Iraq," Ivanov said. "Any solutions with the use of force would not only further complicate an Iraqi settlement but would seriously undermine the already difficult situation in the Persian Gulf and in the Middle East."

Asked whether Moscow would veto any U.N. resolution authorizing invasion of Iraq if Baghdad continues to block the inspections, Ivanov gave a noncommittal answer.

"We hope that the question of use of force will not be put to the Security Council and, therefore, the right of veto will not be necessary," he said.

Moscow's motivation in appealing for a political resolution is probably based in large part on economic interests, as Russia is already Iraq's biggest trading partner and has been negotiating a deal in anticipation of eased sanctions that could be worth as much as $40 billion.

But as the Russian appeal for diplomacy coincides with an apparent rift within the White House, as well as between the U.S. and most North Atlantic Treaty Organization states, the position taken by Moscow could further weaken the Bush administration's resolve to go it alone in striking Iraq.

Although Bush has characterized a potential strike against Iraq as an extension of the war against global terrorism, most European allies have urged Washington to take its case first to the Security Council. French President Jacques Chirac and, in particular, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder have opposed unilateral U.S. action.

Over the weekend, differences of opinion became clear even within the administration, with Vice President Dick Cheney having insisted that an attack is necessary regardless of whether weapons inspections are resumed and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell saying the White House would regard new inspections as a step in the right direction.

Sabri is one of several senior Iraqis dispatched by Hussein to lobby permanent members of the U.N. Security Council against the U.S. threat of force.

The Iraqi foreign minister elicited similar support from Chinese leaders in Beijing last week and is scheduled to head next for an Arab League gathering in Cairo, where he is expected to find additional backing.

Sabri and Ivanov discussed Washington's recent intimations that an attack on Iraq is necessary to spare Western countries from a nuclear or biological weapons strike.

"We have not found a single solid argument in those statements to the effect that Iraq poses a threat to U.S. national security," Ivanov said. "These statements are political."

Both Ivanov and Sabri presented their talks as friendly and constructive, despite a meeting last week between a senior Russian official in Washington and a visiting delegation of Iraqi opposition leaders.

"It was not opposition as such, but people who are working in the interests of the U.S. and British secret services," Sabri said. As to the influence of last week's meeting on ties with Moscow, he said, "this matter has no effect on the depth of our relationship and prospects for its developing."

Ivanov also made little of the Washington contact, calling it "an ordinary event" without meaning for Moscow's relations with Baghdad.

*

Times staff writer Edwin Chen in Neville Island, Pa., contributed to this report.

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