MOSCOW – Baghdad's push for international support against a possible U.S. attack came to Moscow on Monday, with Russia urging Iraq to admit U.N. weapons inspectors to avoid a war that could jeopardize multibillion-dollar economic deals between the trading partners.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri held talks with his Russian counterpart, Igor Ivanov -- the latest in a series of envoys Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein has sent to several world capitals to rally opposition to a threatened U.S.-led attack on Iraq.
President Bush has warned Saddam of unspecified consequences if Iraq does not permit the return of U.N. weapons inspectors to verify that Iraq has dismantled its chemical and biological weapons and the missiles that can carry them. The inspectors left in December 1998.
As Iraq's biggest trade partner and ally on the U.N. Security Council, Russia has echoed Baghdad's demands for a diplomatic settlement and spoken forcefully against unilateral action.
"Any forceful solution regarding Iraq would not only complicate regulation of (the crisis surrounding) Iraq still further, but would also undermine the situation in the Persian Gulf and Middle East," Ivanov said after the talks.
Ivanov reiterated that Russia wants weapons inspectors to return to Iraq.
"We consider that this is a necessary condition for the regularization of the situation and for the lifting of sanctions ... I don't see any alternative to this," he said.
"Our talks today underlined that there is a great possibility for a political regularization of the situation surrounding Iraq."
Russia fears a war not only would complicate the tense Middle East situation but also would jeopardize its economic interests in Iraq, which owes Moscow $7 billion in Soviet-era debt.
Russian oil companies are helping reconstruct Iraq's oil infrastructure and are positioned to reap significant benefits in the future.
Russia and Iraq also are negotiating a 10-year trade agreement, which envisions new cooperation in oil, irrigation, agriculture, transportation, railroads and electrical energy. Iraq's ambassador to Russia, Abbas Khalaf, has said the deal is worth $40 billion.
It was Sabri's second visit to Russia in four months.
He is expected to head to Cairo, Egypt, for talks with Arab counterparts at Wednesday's opening of the biannual Arab League meeting. The Iraqi crisis is expected to top the agenda and lead to a resolution setting out a united Arab position on the U.S.-Iraqi standoff.
Iraq claims it has complied with U.N. resolutions -- imposed following its 1990 invasion of Kuwait, which sparked the 1991 Gulf War -- but has said it wants to continue a dialogue on the inspectors' return, the conditions of which have been rejected by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
U.S. officials have indicated that the return of inspectors may not be sufficient to stave off action against Iraq. Bush spokesman Scott McClellan said Sunday the president agrees that "unfettered inspections" are a required first step toward resolving the Iraq situation, but may not necessarily be enough.
Inspections are "no guarantee if at the same time the regime in Iraq continues to try to hide weapons of mass destruction," McClellan said.
The burden is on Iraq to prove it is not producing weapons of mass destruction, he said.
In Tehran, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi reiterated his nation's opposition to a possible U.S. attack against Iraq. He said the "Iraqi people, and not a world power, should determine Iraq's destiny."
"At the same time, Iran will not remain indifferent toward instability because if a country decides to overthrow another country's government, this will create a norm."