UNITED NATIONS – In a victory for the United States, The U.N. Security Council unanimously approved an overhaul of sanctions against Iraq on Tuesday.
The resolution aims to tighten the 11-year-old military embargo on Saddam Hussein's regime, while easing the flow of civilian goods into Iraq.
The 15-0 vote capped months of negotiations between Russia, which wants sanctions against Iraq suspended, and the U.S., which is committed to removing Saddam and has threatened to use force if he doesn't allow U.N. weapons inspectors to return.
The U.S. had negotiated for months with Russia, Saddam's most important Security Council ally, on a system aimed at sending civilian supplies to Iraq more quickly while maintaining a ban on military goods.
The U.S.-Russian agreement won backing from the three other veto-wielding Security Council members -- Britain, France and China. The resolution was introduced a week ago by all five permanent members, giving it added clout.
The resolution was approved unanimously after Syria, Iraq's neighbor, decided at the last minute not to abstain.
The new plan includes a 300-page "goods review list" of supplies that have military and civilian uses, from trucks to communications equipment, which have to be evaluated separately within 30 days. Most goods not on the list can go to Iraq after a 10-day review by U.N. officials.
Currently, virtually everything but food and medicine is scrutinized by the council's sanctions committee.
The council vote extends the U.N. oil-for-food program for six months and represents the greatest change in the humanitarian program since it was launched in 1996 to help Iraq's people cope with sanctions imposed after Saddam's 1990 invasion of Kuwait.
The program, an exemption to sanctions, was designed to provide necessities but has been expanded to cover public services such as education and water supply. It has become the mainstay of the Iraqi economy and is funded by oil sales.
Under the current program, the U.N. committee monitoring sanctions must approve most contracts for humanitarian goods. But any of the 15 Security Council members can place a contract on hold.
More than $5 billion worth of contracts are currently on hold -- about 90 percent by the United States and about 10 percent by Britain -- on grounds that the goods have a potential military use. Iraq has criticized the Western allies for denying it crucial humanitarian supplies.
The newly adopted resolution contains a lengthy list of goods that would need U.N. review before shipment to Iraq, ranging from telecommunications and information technology equipment to sophisticated engineering items. But all other humanitarian goods can be freely imported by Iraq.
"This is an improvement for everybody -- the fact that there are a lot of new products that are going to be allowed without any holds or any limitation is better for the country, for the Iraqis," said Colombia's U.N. Ambassador Alfonso Valdivieso, who has a rotating council seat.
Sanctions against Iraq cannot be lifted until U.N. inspectors report that its biological, chemical and nuclear weapons programs have been dismantled along with the missiles to deliver them. Inspectors left Iraq ahead of U.S. and British airstrikes in December 1998 and Iraq has barred them from returning, maintaining that its banned weapons programs have been eliminated.
Since March, Iraq's Foreign Minister Naji Sabri has held two rounds of talks with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan on the return of inspectors, and a third round is expected, probably in late May.
Before the vote, Syria's U.N. Ambassador Mikhail Wehbe said "it is high time to lift the sanctions" and he criticized the council's failure to get Israel to cooperate with a U.N. fact-finding mission into its attack on the Jenin refugee camp. Nonetheless, he said Syria had decided to join the consensus supporting the resolution to help the council "reconstruct and retrieve its credibility."
Council experts on Monday rejected Syrian amendments to the resolution, including a proposed reference to a country's right to self-defense if attacked, It appeared aimed at responding to U.S. threats to topple Saddam. Wehbe said it was also aimed at the so-called "no-fly" zones over northern and southern Iraq enforced by U.S. and British aircraft.
Under the revised oil-for-food system approved Tuesday, contracts for humanitarian goods ordered by Iraq would be sent to the U.N. office that runs the program. It would have 10 day to forward the contracts to the two U.N. agencies responsible for dismantling Iraq's banned weapons.
The two agencies -- the U.N. Monitoring and Verification Commission and the International Atomic Energy Agency -- would, in turn, have 10 days to raise any objections.
Contracts for items not on the list would be automatically approved.
If either body identifies an item as objectionable, the contract would then be forwarded to the Security Council committee monitoring sanctions. It would decide whether to allow the item's purchase subject to monitoring, ask the supplier to substitute an items, or reject it.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.