A US official arrived in Moscow yesterday to seek support for the removal of economic sanctions against Iraq, which Russia has said cannot be lifted until it is clear the country has no weapons of mass destruction.
Assistant Secretary of State Kim Holmes had an unscheduled meeting with Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov after talks with Russia's diplomatic point man on Iraq, Deputy Foreign Minister Yuri Fedotov. He was to travel to Germany later in the day on a similar mission.
The US wants the sanctions imposed after Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait lifted quickly and is expected to present a draft UN Security Council resolution on their removal in the coming days.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said last week that the sanctions cannot be lifted until it is clear Iraq has no weapons of mass destruction.
Fedotov reiterated that stance Wednesday and again yesterday. The Interfax news agency quoted him as saying before Holmes' arrival that the sanctions can be lifted only on the basis of existing Security Council resolutions calling, in part, for "clarity on Iraq's disarmament dossier."
Under council resolutions, UN inspectors must certify that Iraq's nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs have been eliminated along with the long-range missiles to deliver them before sanctions could be lifted.
On Wednesday, Fedotov said it would take time to develop a procedure for lifting the sanctions and that for now Russia favors a "temporary solution" involving suspending sanctions on goods including food and medicine.
Ivanov struck a more conciliatory note yesterday, saying Russia supports suspending or lifting "all sanctions that hinder or limit the resolution of humanitarian problems in Iraq."
"There is no reason for the Iraqi people, who have suffered from sanctions for 11 years, to continue to suffer from them today," Interfax quoted him as saying after a meeting with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal.
However, he emphasized that the removal of sanctions must be carried out in accordance with existing Security Council resolutions.
Putin called last week for the return of UN weapons inspectors who were in Iraq before the war, and Foreign Minister Alexander Yakovenko reiterated the importance of the UN team yesterday.
He said only UN inspectors can pronounce the "final verdict" on whether a trailer truck US officials said might have been a biological lab was part of an Iraqi weapons program, Interfax reported.
The US has deployed its own inspection teams, and top US officials have said they don't want UN inspectors to return any time soon.
For years, Russia sought the removal of the sanctions as Iraq's main ally in the Security Council, hoping to regain more than US$8 billion in Iraqi debt and reap the economic benefits of its diplomatic support.
But since the war, which it adamantly opposed, Russia has tried to use its status as a veto-wielding council member to steer control over the situation in Iraq back to the UN, instead of the US.
Fedotov said Russia wants the Security Council to begin discussions as soon as possible on a resolution "that would determine the role of the UN in the settlement process and the restoration of Iraq," according to Interfax.
He said he hoped his talks with Holmes and consultations at the UN would "produce a resolution acceptable to all UN Security Council members, restore unity in the Security Council and enable movement on the path to an Iraqi settlement with the weighty participation of the United Nations."