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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Kremlin Strives to Salvage Iraq Plan




The Kremlin tried to put its best face Tuesday on a humiliating brush-off from Baghdad by insisting that its Persian Gulf diplomacy campaign could still avert U.S. military strikes against Iraq.


Washington, however, voiced skepticism about Russia's efforts to mediate in the UN-Iraq standoff over weapons inspections, which so far have led to little progress.


U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said Tuesday she has convinced allies that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein must be punished for banning UN inspection teams from dozens of sites suspected of storing evidence of his biological and chemical weapons programs. (See story, Page 5).


The Kremlin spent much of Monday touting what it said was a concession by Saddam to open up eight presidential palaces to inspection and to meet with the leader of the UN inspections team.


Monday evening, however, Iraq flatly denied that any such proposals had been agreed upon.


Moscow political analysts said Russia, by portraying itself as the chief advocate of a peaceful resolution, will score points in the world arena -- and particularly with the oil-rich Arab world -- even if its shuttle diplomacy fails.


But most Russian media predicted Tuesday that U.S. airstrikes are imminent, and that Iraq's apparent rejection of a Russia-brokered compromise late Monday was a blow to Kremlin prestige.


President Boris Yeltsin's chief spokesman said at a hastily arranged Tuesday morning briefing that special Russian envoy Viktor Posuvalyuk's Iraq mission "continues and is bringing positive results."


"There are signs of shifts in the position of Iraq in the direction of demands of the international community," said the spokesman, Sergei Yastrzhembsky.


"We hope this will make it possible to continue implementing UN resolutions on destroying weapons of mass destruction in Iraq."


But Yastrzhembsky was unable to explain why Iraq called "totally, totally incorrect" the Kremlin's announcement Monday.


"Our presidential press service does not coordinate its statements with those made by Iraqi officials," Yastrzhembsky said.


UN inspectors have identified some 60 sites defended by Hussein's elite presidential guard that they say may in fact be small Iraqi factories or storage facilities for components of banned chemical and biological weapons.Inspectors say Saddam is refusing to abide by agreements he made, including intrusive verification inspections, after his invading forces were routed from Kuwait in the 1991 Gulf War. Analysts say he is deliberately using the prospect of U.S. airstrikes to boost his popularity at home.


Albright, completing a three-day tour of the Middle East to drum up support for possible military strikes, said Tuesday the United States would have "all the cooperation we need" from Persian Gulf states, according to news reports.


Russia is banking on help from France and China, which are much closer to Russia than Washington in their approach to the crisis. A special French envoy was due to meet Iraq's Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz late Tuesday with his own set of peace proposals.


Russia is anxious to preserve traditional political and business ties with Iraq, which still owes Moscow billions of dollars in debt from Soviet-era loans.


"First and foremost, we want to get back that money. By playing nice now, Russia is hoping that Hussein will return the loan when he is able to," said Viktor Kremenyuk, deputy director of the USA/Canada Institute.


The Kremlin is also being pressed to act tough by the nationalist opposition in parliament. Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov, a Middle East expert with a long friendship with Saddam, was in 1996 recruited into the Kremlin in part because of his expertise in the region.


Primakov spent Tuesday evening in the State Duma, Russia's opposition-led lower house of parliament, where he found moral support from liberals and nationalists alike.


"The U.S. has to test all of the peaceful options before resorting to military means," said Alexei Arbatov, deputy chairman of the Duma's defense committee and a prominent liberal in the democratic opposition Yabloko faction.


The Duma later adopted a nonbinding resolution "condemning American attempts to blackmail Iraq."


Russian defense analysts Tuesday praised Primakov for working to boost Russia's image in the oil-rich gulf.


"Moscow risks nothing even if its diplomacy accomplishes nothing. If the U.S. decides not to strike, the credit will go to Moscow. If it does strike, Russia will be remembered in the region as a mercenary," Kremenyuk said.


There was little question which option seemed more probable to the Moscow media, whose news broadcasts and newspaper reports were filled with ominous footage and pictures of the U.S. war machine.


Nezavisimaya Gazeta on Tuesday featured a front-page photograph of an F-18 U.S. fighter jet. The photo caption read: "These planes are preparing to hit Iraq both with nuclear and conventional weapons."


"To bomb or not to bomb is no longer the issue," the Segodnya daily announced in a headline. An accompanying photo showed a navy officer carting two bombs across the George Washington aircraft carrier now stationed in the Gulf.