Tue, 07 Nov 2000

Iraq defies UN trade sanctions

By Peter Beaumont

LONDON: The vast marble halls of Saddam International Airport have not been so busy in a decade. On Tuesday seven international flights touched down at the massive complex on the outskirts of Baghdad including aircraft from Turkey, Lebanon, Russia and the United Arab Emirates, all carrying officials and business delegations for the opening of the annual Baghdad trade fair, the biggest since it resumed business in 1995.

Among those who were greeted by Iraqi press and officials and walked through the almost deserted arrivals area last Tuesday was an Irish MEP, Niall Andrews, who had traveled on the first flight since 1991 from Dublin.

His journey via Bucharest to Baghdad in an eight-seater aircraft, carrying US$14,000 worth of medicines for the children of Iraq was, he admits, intended as a symbolic gesture against a sanctions regime he believes is redundant and repellent.

Andrews could not ignore the most obvious evidence of the UN Security Council's rapidly unraveling sanctions regime against Iraq -- a giant Tu-154 that arrived from Moscow with 50 parliamentarians and businessmen led by Pyotr Romanov, Communist Deputy Speaker of the Duma.

The significance of the Russian plane was simple: a bold statement by one of the five permanent members of the UN's Security Council that, along with fellow members France and China, it has grown weary of America's and Britain's continuing "war" against Iraq.

Iraq and Russia have negotiated the resumption of "charter flights" between Moscow and Baghdad, which would be a violation of the flight ban and "two no-fly zones" established by the West after the invasion of Kuwait. Jordan -- say sources -- is not be far behind.

Soccer players, entertainers, intellectuals -- all from the Arab world -- have also been visiting Baghdad to show their solidarity with President Saddam Hussein for his support of the Palestinian cause.

The decade-long international sanctions regime against Iraq appears in danger of complete collapse. Since August more than 40 "humanitarian" flights have flown into Iraq. An increasing number, Russian flights among them, are refusing to seek explicit permission from Britain and the United States to fly.

Even as U.S. and British military aircraft last week launched their latest attack on targets inside Iraq, Saddam was hosting the most senior diplomatic figure to visit since the Gulf War, the Jordanian Prime Minister, Ali Abu al-Ragheb, who flew to Baghdad last week with 100 journalists and officials to "promote good relations between the two countries".

Meanwhile the U.S. and the UK launched a counter-offensive to maintain their hardline position against Iraq.

Last week the Foreign Office went into overdrive to remind the British public of the continuing corruption and bestiality of Saddam's regime, including reports of the beheading of 30 prostitutes in Basra whose heads were allegedly hung outside their doors.

The U.S., citing an increased level of threat by Iraq against Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, has put its troops on heightened alert. What they fear is that Iraq -- and Saddam -- are being rehabilitated by stealth through selfish commercial interests despite his refusal to readmit United Nations weapons inspectors to Baghdad.

They believe Saddam has manipulated the Israeli crisis, and President Bill Clinton's withdrawal from a wider stage in the run-up to the U.S. elections, to strengthen his hand in the Arab world and the wider international community.

What is true is that what is driving the sudden renewed enthusiasm for Iraq is the lure of lucrative contracts linked to the high oil price. This year Iraq will pump $24 billion under the UN-administered oil-for food program imposed to prevent the country using its oil receipts to fund the building of weapons of mass destruction. Saddam's regime will also earn more than $1 billion from oil illegally exported.

"The Baghdad trade fair last week was packed," Niall Andrews told The Observer. "There were pavilions from Germany, France, Spain, Finland ... What was most extraordinary was that there was a pavilion from Iran (Iraq's long-term enemy from the first Gulf War)."

"It is simple," says an Iraqi opponent of Saddam's regime. "Saddam knows that the best way to overturn the sanctions regime without making any concessions over the arms inspections is to appeal to international greed. That is where the real pressure will tell on Britain and the U.S. -- from their own business interests."

It is a claim borne out by the ambitions of some of the biggest players in the oil business who have made clear they are waiting for the end of sanctions to move in. A survey by Deutsche Bank showed that Western companies interested in Iraq include the world's largest energy companies: ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch/Shell and BP.

France's TotalfinaElf has secured exclusive negotiating rights for the huge Majnoon and Bin Umar fields and has been close to signing deals for some time.

The position of Britain and the U.S. has been undermined by the recognition earlier this year by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan of the "moral dilemma" posed by sanctions, in particular the impact on the health of ordinary Iraqis, and children in particular.

Annan said the UN was in danger of losing the propaganda war -- "if we haven't already lost it" -- about who is responsible for this situation. "Is it Saddam Hussein or the United Nations?" he asked.

Andrews has joined a chorus of protest against the sanctions which, he believes, are in urgent need of reconsideration. Ironically, among them are Iraqi opponents of Saddam. "The sanctions regime is helping to keep Saddam in power," said one opposition analyst. "They keep people poor and dependent on the regime. There needs to be an urgent reappraisal."

-- Observer News Service