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Iraq-Russia talks on ending sanctions shift into high gear

iraq russia
Iraqi Deputy Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz and Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, left, met in Moscow on Wednesday  

MOSCOW, Russia (Reuters) -- High-profile Moscow talks between Russia and Iraq on ending a decade of U.N. sanctions against the oil-rich Gulf state went into overtime Wednesday.

Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov spent about 90 minutes in discussions with visiting Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz before breaking for lunch, Foreign Ministry officials said.

The talks were to resume after lunch. A scheduled news conference was abruptly canceled.

Statements by Iraqi officials are being eagerly watched by oil markets, nervous about a Friday deadline for Baghdad to settle a dispute with the United Nations on oil exports.

Diplomats cited by the Interfax news agency said Ivanov might consult with Russian President Vladimir Putin during the break.

Share your thoughts on the situation in Iraq

But neither the Kremlin nor Foreign Ministry could confirm the report. They were also silent on suggestions that Aziz might visit Putin.

At the start of their meeting, Ivanov said discussions would focus on "U.N. resolutions on lifting the blockade and sanctions" against Iraq, Interfax news agency reported.

"The main task is to stabilize the situation in the Persian Gulf," Interfax quoted him as saying.

Aziz arrived in Moscow from Beijing, where he secured Chinese support for lifting the sanctions, a boost to Baghdad's diplomatic drive to drum up support on the issue.

Interest in the Moscow talks intensified when the scheduled news conference was canceled minutes before it was due to begin. Foreign Ministry officials said that the talks had run over and were to resume.

Russia, traditionally Iraq's ally and a permanent U.N. Security Council member, opposes the oil and trade sanctions, saying they inflict suffering on millions of ordinary Iraqis.

But in return for their suspension, Moscow wants Baghdad to allow U.N. inspectors to return and complete checks on whether Iraq has disposed of its banned weapons of mass destruction.

An Iraqi source said the Moscow talks may have snagged on the thorny issue of weapons inspections. "Iraq doesn't agree with the return of the inspectors," the source said.

U.N. sanctions can only be permanently lifted once Iraq has been certified by international inspectors as free of weapons of mass destruction. The measures were imposed in 1990 following Iraq's invasion of neighboring Gulf oil state Kuwait.

The Foreign Ministry said it had no immediate plans to release a communique on the visit by Aziz.

Under the U.N. sanctions regime, Iraq may sell limited amounts of oil to purchase food and essential humanitarian supplies. But the proceeds are funneled into a special U.N. account.

The United Nations has rejected as too low an Iraqi price offer on its next batch of oil for sale. If the dispute is not settled by a December 1 deadline, exports could be suspended.

Iraqi Oil Minister Amer Mohammed Rasheed on Wednesday stood by the country's price offer.

The dispute could keep Iraq's output of 2.3 million barrels a day from global markets and push crude prices higher.

Moscow has clear economic reasons of its own for wanting the sanctions to end. It wants an important role for Russian oil firms in developing Iraq's oil industry after they are lifted.

Ivanov has written to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan complaining that Iraq sanctions cost Russia $30 billion.

Copyright 2000 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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