Reporting from Washington and Baghdad — The U.N. Security Council voted Wednesday to lift key sanctions on Iraq, in a major step to restore the nation to the international standing it had before Saddam Hussein's 1990 invasion of Kuwait.
The council lifted restrictions aimed at preventing Iraq from developing weapons of mass destruction, opening the way for Baghdad to eventually build civilian nuclear plants. It also ordered the dismantling next June of the U.N. programs that since 1995 have given foreign powers control over how Iraq has spent its huge oil revenue.
Iraqi leaders have chafed at the sanctions as an affront to their sovereignty, and have pressed for years for their removal.
"The adoption of these important resolutions marks the beginning of the end of the sanctions regime, and restrictions on Iraq's sovereignty, independence and recovery," Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told the council.
In addition, the council's action allowed the Obama administration to remind Americans that it is unwinding its relationship with an Iraq it hopes is moving toward stability seven years after the U.S.-led invasion that resulted in Hussein's ouster.
Vice President Joe Biden, who traveled to New York to preside over the Security Council session, said the resolutions to lift the sanctions "bring an end to the burdensome remnants of the dark era of Saddam Hussein."
He said the Iraqis have "emerged from the depths of sectarian violence … and they have earned themselves a chance for much better days ahead."
The sanctions had carried more punch than most adopted by the world body, because they were authorized under Chapter 7 of the U.N. charter, which provides that they can be enforced by military action.
When Iraq surprised the world by invading Kuwait in 1990, global leaders imposed sanctions that prohibited it from importing chemicals and nuclear equipment that could be used in chemical, biological or nuclear weapons programs.
Five years later, the U.N. set up the so-called oil-for-food program, under which international officials spent $31 billion in Iraqi oil revenue to provide food for Iraq. After an investigation discovered massive corruption in the program, it was frozen, then supplanted in 2003 by the Development Fund for Iraq, aimed at ensuring that Iraqi authorities spent oil and gas revenues for rebuilding and restoring their nation's economy.
The U.N.'s action Wednesday means that Iraq will no longer be shielded from hundreds of legal claims from governments and individuals. But the end of international spending oversight means that it will be easier for the Iraqi government to qualify for a credit rating, issue bonds and obtain loans.
The council agreed in February to lift its nuclear curbs on Iraq if Baghdad approved an agreement with the U.N. nuclear watchdog allowing inspectors to keep a close eye on Iraqi facilities. The government hasn't yet approved the deal, but the United Nations decided to lift its sanctions anyway, based on U.N. officials' hopes that Iraq will sign the International Atomic Energy Agency agreement.
The main unresolved issue under the sanctions is Iraq's war reparations, owed mostly to Kuwait. Iraq has paid $130 billion in reparations for the 1990 invasion, but still owes $22 billion, which it pays gradually as a 5% tariff on its oil revenue.
But the continuing reparations are a source of outrage to many Iraqi officials and citizens, who believe that post-Hussein Iraq has suffered enough for the dead leader's crimes.
In Baghdad, Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish member of parliament, hailed lifting of the sanctions, but called on Kuwait to agree to settle its claims directly with Iraq so the last sanctions provisions could be dropped.
"It's time now that Kuwait shows some flexibility and finalizes all the suspended files between the two countries," he said in an interview.
Qais Abd Ali, 44, an employee of the Iraqi Ministry of Culture, said he saw "no justification" for keeping the remaining sanctions on Iraq, because the country had paid compensation and had no weapons of mass destruction.
"We are not a threat to the international community," he said. "The United States should adhere to its commitments by helping Iraq get rid of them."
In addition to the sanctions issue, Kuwait and Iraq have not formally agreed on their border. They also have not resolved issues of missing people and property from the war. There are more than 350 missing Kuwaitis and 760 missing Iraqis.
Though Iraq is now free to develop a civilian nuclear program, as some of its neighbors have, there is no expectation that it will do so any time soon.
Iraq has no restrictions on the rebuilding of its conventional military, and is purchasing American F-16 fighter jets.
Richter reported from Washington and Parker from Baghdad. Salar Jaff of The Times' Baghdad Bureau contributed to this report.