Desperate Russia shuns Iraq's seductive billions


MOSCOW -- Seeking to break the economic blockade imposed in 1991 by the United Nations, Iraq went public yesterday with a very visible campaign to woo Russia away from the West.

The Iraqi ambassador, Ghafil Jassim Hussein, invited Russian reporters to the embassy for an unprecedented news conference, during which he appealed to anti-American feeling, described the dire problems of ordinary Iraqis that have been caused by the blockade, and dangled the prospect of billion-dollar deals for Russia's own struggling economy.

And across town a high-level delegation from the Iraqi Oil Ministry was holding talks with Russian officials about cooperating on five major oil-field projects.

But even as Russian diplomats were heading for Baghdad in a unilateral effort to mediate a resolution to the Persian Gulf tensions, the Foreign Ministry declared that Russia will stand by the United Nations sanctions and make no separate agreements with Iraq until those sanctions have been lifted.

"You should be sure that we have no intention to break the line of the international community toward Iraq," a high-level Russian Foreign Ministry official said yesterday.

In an effort to find a way to change that line, though, Foreign Minister Andrei V. Kozyrev reportedly will fly to Baghdad himself, perhaps as early as today, and then on to Kuwait.

Moscow, once Iraq's major arms supplier, backed the U.S.-led effort to drive the Iraqi army out of Kuwait in 1991 but more recently has urged a softening of the economic blockade around Iraq, along with France and China.

For one thing, Iraq owes Russia $6 billion, which is currently frozen, and Russia, as well, sees a chance to resume what was once a fairly robust trade with its former client.

The United States and Great Britain have insisted on maintaining the sanctions, and now Iraq is trying to exploit the difference.

Yet the movement of troops to the Kuwaiti border, which sparked the latest crisis, has if anything tied Russia's hands. Analysts here say that Russia could not keep pushing to soften the sanctions in the face of such an overt provocation.

They suggest that the hasty diplomatic mission to Baghdad has one goal: to tell Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to cool things down, because otherwise he will never be able to do business with Russia or anyone else.

So far, though, the Iraqis have kept pressing in Moscow. The oil delegation arrived at Iraqi initiative, and Mr. Hussein, the ambassador, was straightforward in his appeal to the Russian public.

He said Russia had lost $30 billion in business with Iraq over the last four years. In addition to the oil talks, which he said could result in contracts worth "billions" of dollars, he announced that another negotiating team, which came here last month, had agreed on $10 billion worth of industrial projects to be launched as soon as sanctions are withdrawn.

"The world public should exercise some pressure on the United Nations and United States so that the economic blockade can be lifted," Mr. Hussein said. "We don't think the world will tolerate what America is planning for Iraq now."

He described at length the poor nutrition and medical care that exist in Iraq today, which he said were caused by the sanctions.

But the Russian Foreign Ministry official, who asked that his name be withheld, said that Russia will fully support sanctions until Iraq withdraws its troops from the border, recognizes Kuwait, recognizes the border as drawn by the U.N. and provides help in identifying those still missing from the 1991 war.

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