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Since 1st March, 1999
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Big powers resume sparring

Baghdad, April 17 (Reuters): Just one week after US forces seized Baghdad, the big powers returned to diplomatic sparring over Iraq’s future today after Washington urged an end to UN economic sanctions on the “liberated” country.

Shifting focus from combat to reconstruction amid what it sees as improving security in the ravaged Iraqi capital, the US said it would propose a resolution “in the near future” to wind up the 13-year-old sanctions.

But lurking in the background were unresolved questions about the future UN role in Iraq, invaded four weeks ago by US and British forces without the explicit backing they had sought from the world body.

The EU, divided over Iraq, today said the UN must play “a central role” in rebuilding Iraq but also stressed that the US-led forces in the country had a responsibility to restore stability.

Russian foreign minister Igor Ivanov said today in Moscow economic sanctions against Iraq could not be lifted unless the country complied with previous UN Security Council conditions.

“This decision cannot be automatic. It demands that conditions laid out in corresponding UN Security Council resolutions be fulfilled,” Ivanov said.

“For the Security Council to take this decision, we need to be certain whether Iraq has weapons of mass destruction or not.” But he said Russia did not oppose the removal of Iraqi sanctions: “I think it is in the interests of the international community that these sanctions be removed as soon as possible.”

Moscow has in the past consistently lobbied for sanctions to be removed, mainly in the hope of making good billions of dollars in oil contracts for its firms, the biggest buyers of Iraqi crude oil before the US campaign.

At the UN, diplomats said an end to sanctions should depend on the UN certifying that Iraq is free of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.

Its alleged possession of such weapons was the main reason Washington gave for the war. That in turn raises the question of whether any weapons of mass destruction are going to be found in Iraq. None has been so far, but US commanders say there could be up to 3,000 sites to check.

Gen. Tommy Franks, who commanded the invasion that overthrew Saddam Hussein, said after a visit to Baghdad that the orgy of looting that erupted in the city after American troops arrived was now subsiding.

“The looting goes down every day and I think you will continue to see it go down because the Iraqis are now stepping up and controlling the problems for themselves,” he said in Kuwait. He said 2,200 Iraqi civilians volunteered yesterday in Baghdad to work as unarmed police officers. Franks earlier told President George W. Bush that water and power were being restored in Baghdad and hospitals were starting to function again after days of anarchy.

“Now that Iraq is liberated, the UN should lift sanctions on that country,” Bush said yesterday. The sanctions imposed after Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait barred all trade with Baghdad but to relieve hardship on the Iraqi people, a UN programme was established in 1996 that allowed Iraq to sell oil to buy food and essentials.

America’s UN ambassador, John Negroponte, said Washington envisioned a “step-by-step procedure” to lift the sanctions.

Franks flew to Baghdad airport yesterday where runways are still pockmarked with craters from US bombs.

He met troops and military commanders and gave Bush a progress report via video-conference from one of Saddam’s abandoned palaces.

The EU statement, issued by president Greece, said: “The UN must play a central role, including in the process leading towards self-government for the Iraqi people.” But it added: “At this stage, the coalition has the responsibility to ensure a secure environment, including provision of humanitarian assistance and protection of the cultural heritage and museums.” The US has said it will not allow the UN Security Council any decisive role in Iraq after the body refused to vote for its invasion. With the talk turning to how Iraq will be governed after Saddam, Australia announced that most of the 2,000 military personnel it sent to the Gulf to support US and British forces would start returning home in May.

Ahmad Chalabi, a leader of the Opposition Iraqi National Congress (INC) and a favourite of the Pentagon, became the first major exile politician to return to Baghdad since Saddam’s fall.

An adviser, Zaab Sethna, said Chalabi was meeting people who had been INC supporters in Baghdad. Opposition parties were driven underground by Saddam’s Baathist government.

The head of the fledgling US-led civil administration of Iraq, retired Gen. Jay Garner, said today that despite many problems lying ahead he was optimistic Iraqis could overcome deep divisions to establish a vibrant democracy.

Garner said he was convinced Iraq’s history of ethnic tension between Kurds and Arabs and rivalries between Sunnis and Shias could be surmounted.

“I think it will all work out,” he said in Kuwait.

“Everything is a challenge. It’s security, it’s turning on the lights, turning on the water, getting kids back in school, getting crops planted, getting them harvested, grading roads, building bridges, cleaning rubble,” he said.

Aid continued to trickle in with the UN World Food Programme (WFP) saying it had sent 50 trucks carrying 1,400 tonnes of flour into Iraq through Jordan, thus opening its second aid corridor after Turkey.

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