Global Policy Forum

US Favors Easing Iraq Sanctions


By Alan Sipress

Washington Post
February 27, 2001

The Bush administration favors eliminating many of the economic sanctions imposed on Iraq a decade ago and refocusing the restrictions more tightly on President Saddam Hussein's military and his ability to produce weapons of mass destruction, State Department officials said today. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who has been explaining the outline for what officials call "smart sanctions" during his current tour of Middle East capitals, said he did not get support for every detail of the U.S. plan but added, "Everyone I spoke to said you've got to go down this track."

Several U.S. allies in the Middle East and Europe -- joining a chorus from Russia, China and Iraq itself -- have complained that the U.N. economic sanctions and the way the United States insists they be applied have imposed unfair burdens on the Iraqi population. Pressure has risen recently for a major overhaul of the sanctions; Iraqi Foreign Minister Mohammed Saeed Sahhaf began meetings today with U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan in New York, discussing sanctions and weapons inspections. Sahhaf told reporters at U.N. headquarters that Baghdad will never allow U.N. weapons inspectors back into Iraq, "even if sanctions are totally lifted." Sahhaf said he presented the U.N. chief with proof that Iraq has already eliminated all its nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs and demanded that the Security Council respond with "immediate" removal of the sanctions.

Seeking to reconcile the pressure for civilian relief with a desire to squeeze harder on the Iraqi government, Bush administration officials have talked of aiming the sanctions more squarely at weaponry and revenue that could finance the military. The official who briefed reporters accompanying Powell today, and later Powell himself, spelled out for the first time how the administration intends to go about it. "We're going to have to concentrate the controls on weapons of mass destruction items and on military goods and relieve the controls on largely civilian goods," the official declared.

Moreover, the official said the United States will recommend reducing the number of "dual use" goods that Iraq is banned from importing under the sanctions. These include items that can be put to either military or civilian purposes, such as water pumps and refrigeration trucks that are typically used for hauling milk but, officials said, may also transport biological weapons. The senior State Department official added that new procedures should be adopted at the United Nations to ensure that contracts for importing Iraqi goods are more quickly reviewed and approved by the sanctions committee. About 1,600 contracts worth an estimated $3 billion are on hold because of objections, many from the United States.

Powell, in a separate briefing, acknowledged that some critics could see the revision as watering down the sanctions. "Charges will come that this is weakening; I understand that," he said. But he explained that by stripping away some of the broader economic sanctions, the United Nations could strengthen the core sanctions by raising the idea that countries that violate them will face real penalties. "Right now," he added, "the consequences have less currency because things are in, I must say, a state of disarray."

Powell has spoken several times during his trip about scaling back some of the broad U.N. economic embargo on trade and travel if this can help build Arab support for narrower sanctions. During talks with leaders of five Arab countries, including those today in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Syria, Powell has stressed that the restrictions should be specifically directed at imports and revenue that could help Iraq develop biological, chemical or nuclear weapons.

During the talks today and in Egypt on Saturday, Powell found that Arab leaders have consistently approved measures that would keep Hussein's military ambitions in check while easing the economic distress of his citizens, the senior State Department official said. "We think there is a clear understanding of the directions we are taking," the official said. "The trip has built our confidence in our efforts." American officials expect to reveal their sanctions policy as part of an overall reevaluation of the U.S. approach to Iraq, to be completed this spring. The senior State Department official said the Bush administration "would like to see progress on the policy" before the end of March, when an Arab League summit is scheduled in Amman.

The formal U.S. decision to streamline sanctions would come only after Powell completes his consultations with Arab leaders and then talks with American allies in Europe, the other permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Annan. "It will be because we have been able to agree with our friends in the region and our friends in the U.N. that the sanctions should be modified so that we can remove this hammer that is being used against us, suggesting that we are hurting the Iraqi people, and we can make clear that the sanctions directly relate to the provocation," Powell said. By suggesting some restrictions be lifted, Bush administration officials said they want to persuade several of Iraq's neighbors to stem smuggling of military items into the country and unregulated oil in the other direction.

In Damascus today, Powell spoke with President Bashar Assad about a recently reopened Syrian pipeline that oil industry analysts say is illegally pumping between 120,000 and 200,000 barrels a day of Iraqi petroleum outside U.N. sanctions. The secretary of state said Assad told him he would bring the pipeline into conformity with U.N. requirements, but the Syrian leader did not say when. Similarly, increasing amounts of Iraqi oil have been exported by truck through the Kurdish-controlled northern Iraqi mountains and into Turkey, a key U.S. ally.

When Powell raised the issue of smuggling across the Iraq-Jordan border with King Abdullah during a stop in Amman on Sunday, he was told that the United States should not single out the kingdom but review all sanctions leaks. "He agreed that everybody had to look and no one frontline state can be at a disadvantage to the other frontline states in this regard," Powell said. Powell has acknowledged that his task of rallying regional support for U.S. policy on Iraq was made more difficult by the Feb. 16 airstrikes carried out by U.S. and British warplanes against antiaircraft sites near Baghdad. Before his visits to Damascus and Riyadh today, where he spoke with top Saudi officials including Crown Prince Abdullah, Syria and Saudi Arabia issued a joint statement condemning the raids.

More Information on the Iraq Crisis
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