By Farouk Choukri and Kamal TahaAgence France Presse
January 30, 2001
Iraq is preparing to sign free trade accords with several more Arab countries after Egypt and Syria, throwing off the shackles of decade-old sanctions imposed for invading Kuwait.
"These agreements, which will transform the Iraqi, Syrian and Egyptian markets into a single one, are the start of the erosion of the embargo," Salem Qobaissi, head of Iraq's parliamentary commission on international relations, told AFP. "It is an effective way of boosting Arab solidarity and breaching the sanctions regime," Qobaissi said.
Saad Qassem Hammudi, member of the ruling Baath party, said the accords were "of the utmost importance because they fall outside the oil-for-food programme and so contribute to the erosion of sanctions". "Iraq has to move now to face up to the embargo and continue eroding it," Hammudi said.
Iraq was set to sign a free trade agreement with Syria on Tuesday, similar to the one Baghdad sealed with Cairo on January 18. Both deals call for an end to all customs barriers between the countries.
They are widely seen as a further sign of the erosion of the strict UN sanctions -- the longest and most comprehensive ever applied -- imposed on Iraq after its invasion of Kuwait in 1990.
Trade missions are queuing up for a piece of Iraq's oil wealth, while a divided United Nations has found sanctions increasingly difficult to defend under mounting fire from human rights and public health activists.
There has been no comment yet from the UN Security Council on the accords, as the world body waits to see if the growing trade between Iraq and the Arab world will remain under the confines of the oil-for-food programme.
The programme allows Iraq to export crude to finance imports of humanitarian supplies under strict UN control.
Abdul Aziz Shawish, head of the Iraqi parliamentary commission for financial affairs, said Iraq "will soon sign free trade accords with other Arab countries such as Jordan, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates."
Qobeissi said the "free trade agreements could be the core of a future Arab economic bloc that could allow members to face up to other world economic blocs.
"Such agreements show that Iraq is wholly capable of bringing about Arab solidarity and putting an end to enemy plots aimed at marginalising the role of Iraq by maintaining the embargo."
Last week, Iraqi Trade Minister Mohammed Mehdi Saleh called on Jordan, Lebanon and the Emirates to follow the Egyptian and Syrian examples.
"We welcome, without exception, all Arab countries entering the free trade accord signed between Iraq and Egypt and which will be concluded between Iraq and Syria," Saleh told the Qatari satellite television network Al-Jazeera.
Jordanian Prime Minister Ali Abu Ragheb said Monday that his country would be holding talks with Iraq next week to set up a free trade zone. "The trade and industry minister will lead a delegation of 150 industrialists, merchants and businessman to Iraq next week to activate the trade protocol that has been signed between Iraq and Jordan," Abu Ragheb said. "The minister will also discuss and implement, God willing, an agreement for a free trade zone with Iraq."
The projects are part of a wider effort launched by the Arab League's 22 members in 1998 to set up a free zone and phase out customs barriers throughout the region by 2007.
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