Britain, U.S. rethink Iraq sanctions
LONDON, England -- Britain and the U.S. are considering easing sanctions on Iraq, just days after launching joint air strikes near its capital, Baghdad.
A senior British diplomat is to meet U.S. officials in Washington on Thursday to explore an alternative format for implementing sanctions.
Switching to so-called "smart sanctions" focused more tightly on arms control, and removing controls on civilian goods imposed after Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait, was one possible change, British sources said on Tuesday.
"We will see if there is room to sharpen the sanctions around weapons of mass destruction," a British official said.
Baghdad blames existing sanctions for a humanitarian disaster which President Saddam Hussein says has killed more than one million people. Britain and the U.S. blame Saddam's policies for the situation.
The impact of sanctions has been eased in the last four years by an "oil-for-food" arrangement that allows Iraq to sell oil and buy food and medicines with some of the proceeds.
Washington and London insist sanctions cannot be finally lifted until Iraq complies with 1991 Gulf War ceasefire resolutions and allows U.N. weapons inspectors to oversee elimination of its weapons of mass destruction programmes.
But Iraq, which refused to let the inspectors back in after a wave of U.S.-British air strikes in December 1998, argues it has already met its obligations and has rallied international support for a complete end to what it calls the blockade.
"Sanctions were never intended to make life hell for the Iraqi people," the British official said.
Britain wants to look at ways to concentrate on stemming imports for Iraq's military machine, he added.
"Unchecked, Iraq could redevelop offensive chemical and biological capabilities, and develop a crude nuclear device in about five years," Foreign Secretary Robin Cook wrote in a British newspaper this week.
The discussions on Iraq will take place a day before U.S. President George Bush meets British Prime Minister Tony Blair in Washington on Friday, and shortly before U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell -- an architect of the 1991 Gulf War that drove Iraqi troops from Kuwait -- begins a tour of the Middle East.
Iraq seeks U.N. explanation
British diplomats say Powell's call to "re-energise" sanctions is in line with a shift towards so-called smart sanctions.
But they add it is not clear whether his view will prevail over more hawkish members of Bush's new administration.
Britain, Washington's most steadfast ally on Iraq and its only partner in aerial patrols over the country, has maintained its fierce public criticism of Saddam in recent weeks but at the same time signalled some flexibility on sanctions.
Former Foreign Office minister Peter Hain said last month Saddam would find "reasonable people ready to do business" if he was prepared to negotiate the return of U.N. weapons inspectors to Iraq.
An Iraqi delegation will meet U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan next week for talks aimed at trying to break the sanctions deadlock.
A senior Iraqi official criticised the U.N. on Tuesday for failing to censure last week's U.S.-British air strikes near Baghdad.
The senior member of President Saddam Hussein's ruling Baath Party accused the United States of blocking any such move in the U.N. Security Council.
"Where is the (U.N.) Security Council... where is the United Nations and where are those who defend the U.N.'s charter," said Abdul-Ghani Abdul-Ghafur.
Reuters contributed to this report.
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