Published on Friday, September 15, 2000 in the Washington Post
Russia May Defy Ban on Air Service To Iraq
by Colum Lynch and David Hoffman
UNITED NATIONS - Russia may resume regular commercial flights between Moscow and Baghdad for the first time since the Persian Gulf War, challenging a decade-old U.N. air embargo on Iraq, West European and Russian diplomats said yesterday.

Such a decision would fly in the face of persistent U.S. efforts to continue the isolation of President Saddam Hussein's government and have Iraq treated as an international outcast. In that light, Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright expressed strong disagreement with the Russian plans and vowed to urge that Moscow reconsider.

"We disagree with those who wish to fly into Iraq, and I will make that clear," she said before a meeting here this afternoon with Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov. "And I don't think it's a good idea."

The Iraqi government reopened Baghdad's Saddam Hussein International Airport for business last month. Meanwhile, the Russian carrier, Aeroflot, and Moscow's Vnukovo Airlines have begun to negotiate with Iraq for exclusive rights to fly from Moscow to Baghdad.

Andrei Okhotkin, director general of Vnukovo Airlines-Trading House, a subsidiary of Vnukovo Airlines, told Russia's Interfax news agency that the Russian foreign and transportation ministries are considering authorization of regular flights, but said a final decision may not be made until the end of this year.

Russia has informed key Arab and European countries in recent weeks that it does not consider the U.N. air embargo to be justified under U.N. resolutions and that it plans to challenge the U.N. Sanctions Committee's practice of barring such flights.

While Security Council resolutions imposing sanctions on Iraq do not explicitly bar all commercial airline connections, key council members on the committee have interpreted the resolutions as including such a prohibition. As a result, the country has been without regular airline service for a decade, forcing most travelers to drive across the desert to and from Amman, the capital of Jordan.

"The resumption of air links with Baghdad and the unblocking of humanitarian contracts frozen by the U.N. Sanctions Committee would constitute a quicker settlement of the Iraq problem," according to a joint statement issued Wednesday by Ivanov and Tariq Aziz, Iraq's deputy prime minister.

French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine warned Aziz on Monday that the sanctions, imposed after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, will not end until Iraq submits to U.N. weapons inspections.

France will not bar its citizens from humanitarian flights to Baghdad but has no plans to authorize resumption of scheduled airline service, he said.

"We believe that an embargo is a very primitive approach. . . . In social terms, it's a cruel measure," Vedrine told reporters in New York on Wednesday.

Russia has already conducted humanitarian flights to Baghdad and has received authorization to do so again. But U.S. officials say the latest Russian move appears to be designed to erode a sanctions policy that Russia has bitterly opposed for years.

The Russian push to restore air travel with Iraq also comes as Baghdad is carrying out a series of actions apparently aimed at testing U.S. and allied resolve. Earlier this week, U.S. officials said an Iraqi warplane slipped across the border into Saudi Arabia.

Today, senior Iraqi officials accused Kuwait of siphoning crude oil from one of its fields and warned that there could be unspecified consequences.

Hoffman reported from Moscow.

© 2000 The Washington Post Company