By Kim SenguptaIndependent
November 11, 2000
The first unauthorised flight from Britain to Iraq since the Gulf War arrived in Baghdad yesterday in defiance of the British and American Governments, plunging the issue of UN sanctions into confusion. The secretly organised flight is the first successful journey from either Britain or America, the two countries most opposed to easing sanctions against Saddam Hussein's regime.
The organisers, including George Galloway, a Labour MP, claimed a victory last night after the Foreign Office in London, which has always maintained that such missions were illegal, appeared to concede that the flight exploited a loophole in the regulations.
This is an embarrassing development for Washington and London, which have repeatedly clashed with the three other permanent members of the UN Security Council – Russia, France and China – over allowing flights to Iraq. Peter Hain, the Foreign Office minister responsible for the Middle East, this week described the French position that the UN sanctions did not include an air embargo as "contemptible".
The flight, which took off from Manston airport in Kent ostensibly heading for a "religious conference" in Bulgaria, was backed by the Bulgarian government. Three other countries, Greece, Cyprus and Syria, also accepted the over-flying of their territory. The plane passed – undetected – through the "no fly" zone to land in Baghdad.
Mr Galloway said: "The sanctions are morally wrong and have led to appalling misery and death among the Iraqi people. We have always said that they did not cover civilian flights and the British Government will now be humiliatingly forced to accept that."
Mr Hain had blocked previous attempts by Mr Galloway and the Mariam Appeal to organise humanitarian flights to Iraq. They did not seek permission for yesterday's flight from either the British Government or the United Nations. The only religious facet to the journey was the presence on board of a Catholic priest, Fr Noel Barry, a former press officer to Cardinal Thomas Winning and a columnist with the Catholic Times.
But it was Fr Barry who became the centre of the drama when, while the flight was being refuelled at the Bulgarian resort of Plovdiv, a call came through from London indicating that the US was aware of the real destination of the plane. FrBarry, the Americans claimed, was carrying cholesterol and angina medicine, both possibly prohibited. The bemused priest said he merely had his prescription tablets to counter kidney-stone formation.
Another sign that the British and US position on sanctions is weakening came in Baghdad. The city, meant to be isolated by embargoes, is hosting a trade fair with 45 countries, including France, Germany, Belgium, China and Russia, represented.
The Iraqi Vice-President, Taha Yassin Ramadan, said: "The embargo has started fizzling out, God willing, with all excuses for keeping it in place falling away." Iraq is pumping 2.3 million barrels of oil a day and has granted lucrative contracts to France, China and Russia. Baghdad has also insisted that it wants the revenue from future oil sales to be in euros, and is converting its Â£7bn current account holdings because sterling represents "enemy currency".
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