MOSCOW - Russia warned the United States on Monday that using force against
Iraq would undermine stability in the region and complicate chances of settling
the Iraqi issue, Russian news agencies said.
Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, speaking at a news conference alongside his Iraqi counterpart, said Russia had no evidence that Iraq posed any threat to U.S. security. He said there was no alternative to Iraq accepting the return of United Nations inspectors to determine whether Baghdad held weapons of mass destruction.
"Any decision to use force against Iraq would not only complicate an Iraqi settlement, but also undermine the situation in the Gulf and the Middle East," Ivanov was quoted as saying after talks with Iraq's Naji Sabri.
Sabri was visiting Russia, a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, as part of Baghdad's concerted efforts to fend off U.S. threats to attack it on grounds that it was trying to acquire weapons of mass destruction.
Sabri visited China last week and Iraqi Vice-President Taha Yassin Ramadan toured Syria and Lebanon.
Ivanov said he hoped the issue of authorizing a strike on Iraq would never go before the Security Council.
"We hope that the question of use of force will not be put to the Security Council and, therefore, the right of veto will not be necessary," he was quoted as saying.
Ivanov said Russia could can not see "a single well-founded argument that Iraq represents a threat to U.S. national security" and disagreed with suggestions by senior officials in Washington that there was no alternative to a military solution.
"I will say frankly that I see no alternative to a return of the international observers," he was quoted as saying. "Our task is not to seek alternatives of any sort but to create conditions for the return of the inspectors in order to open the way for sanctions against Iraq to be lifted."
TIES FROM THE SOVIET ERA
Moscow has strongly backed Washington's "war on terrorism," launched after last September's hijacked airliner attacks on the United States, but has rejected U.S. talk of an "axis of evil" of states bent on obtaining weapons of mass destruction.
Russia enjoys good ties with Iraq dating from Soviet times and has long called for the return of inspectors to deflate pressure for U.S. military action and allow for the lifting of U.N. sanctions first imposed when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990.
U.N. arms experts left Iraq in December 1998 ahead of a U.S.-British bombing campaign to punish Baghdad for its alleged failure to cooperate with inspectors.
Washington has used Iraq's alleged possession of chemical, biological and possibly nuclear weapons to underpin President Bush's campaign for a "regime change" -- a euphemism for ousting Saddam.
Ivanov had urged Iraq at the start of the talks to pursue talks with U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan to facilitate the return of the inspectors and the eventual lifting of sanctions.
Ivanov also praised the "dynamic development" of relations between Russia and Iraq. He made no mention in his opening remarks of a cooperation program which Baghdad's ambassador last month said was close to signature and worth $40 billion.
In Johannesburg, Iraq's Deputy Prime Minister Tareq Aziz told Reuters that the return of the inspectors was "still under consideration." On Sunday, he said told CNN that the return of the monitors under chief U.N. inspector Hans Blix was not an option.
Wider rifts appeared in U.S. public opinion at the weekend over any possible attack, with Secretary of State Colin Powell suggesting the return of the inspectors was a critical step, in contrast with Vice-President Dick Cheney. Several commentators were quick to point out the contradictions.
Russian opposition to any attack on Iraq is seen linked in part to efforts to recover billions of dollars in debts run up by Iraq during the Soviet era. It also hopes its oil firms will secure lucrative pumping contracts when sanctions are lifted.
Sabri was due in Cairo after Moscow to lead his country's delegation at a meeting of Arab foreign ministers starting there on Wednesday, an Iraqi Foreign Ministry source told Reuters.
Copyright 2002 Reuters Ltd