- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 18, 2002

MOSCOW Iraq and Russia are close to signing a $40 billion economic cooperation plan, Iraq's ambassador said yesterday, a deal that could put Moscow at odds with the United States as it considers a military attack against Baghdad.
The statement by Abbas Khalaf came amid indications that Russia, despite its strong support for the post-September 11 antiterrorism coalition, is maintaining or improving ties with Iran and North Korea, which together with Iraq are the countries President Bush has labeled the "axis of evil."
The pending Russia-Iraq economic deal is likely to be seen by Washington as another blow to its efforts to marshal backing for an attack on Iraq. Yesterday, White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan said only, "We're confident that Russia understands its obligations under United Nations Security Council resolutions and that they'll abide by them."
The agreement, which envisions new cooperation in the fields of oil, irrigation, agriculture, transportation, railroads and electrical energy, will most likely be signed in Baghdad in the beginning of September, Mr. Khalaf told the Associated Press.
He emphasized that the new cooperation deal, which is to include new projects as well as the modernization of some Soviet-built infrastructure, would not violate the sanctions.
Sanctions imposed by the Security Council after Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait cannot be lifted until U.N. inspectors certify that its biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons have been destroyed along with the long-range missiles to deliver them.
Moscow has supported lifting the U.N. sanctions, hoping that would allow Baghdad to start paying off its $7 billion Soviet-era debt and help expand trade. The Russian Foreign Ministry said yesterday it had no comment on reports of an imminent economic cooperation agreement.
In the current standoff with the United States, Iraq is counting on Russia to use its leverage in the U.N. Security Council and other diplomatic channels to deprive Washington of international support for a military operation, Mr. Khalaf said.
"First of all, we need moral, political and diplomatic support. Because Iraq knows how to defend itself," he said. "The main thing for us is that American aggression does not go through the U.N. Security Council and that America does not receive a U.N. mandate. Let America act [alone] as an aggressor. It will be condemned from all sides."
Mr. Khalaf said he saw no contradiction between Russia's friendship with Iraq and its ties with Washington, which have strengthened since the September 11 attacks.
"We see friendship among various countries and civilized peoples of the world as a positive step. Any enmity brings harm to a country," he said.
Under President Vladimir Putin, Russian foreign policy has sought to create a network of alliances to counterbalance U.S. domination of international affairs. Although Mr. Putin has moved Russia closer to the West including increasing contacts with NATO and not raising objections to U.S. forces in Georgia and in former Soviet Central Asia he also has pursued relations with countries that are anathema to the United States.
Last month, Russia announced a 10-year plan for nuclear cooperation with Iran. Under the plan, Russia would build five reactors in addition to the one currently under construction at Bushehr, Iran. Washington fears such cooperation could help Iran to develop nuclear weapons.
This week, the Kremlin announced that North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il will visit Russia later in August for the second summer in a row.
Washington is trying to rally support for a possible invasion of Iraq, which the United States accuses of supporting terrorism and of rebuilding its banned weapons of mass destruction program, but many U.S. allies are resisting the push.
Many opponents argue that an invasion cannot be justified without firm proof that the regime of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein is developing nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.
The chief United Nations weapons inspector, Hans Blix, told the Associated Press that he can't say with certainty whether Iraq has such weapons. "If we knew if we had real evidence that they have weapons of mass destruction we would bring it to the Security Council," he said.

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