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Thursday, February 19, 1998 Published at 13:09 GMT

Russia - Iraq's Best Friend?
image: [ Russian special envoy Viktor Posavulyuk meets Saddam Hussein ]
Russian special envoy Viktor Posavulyuk meets Saddam Hussein

Throughout the Iraqi crisis, Russia has been adamant that diplomatic, and not military, means must be used to resolve it. In sticking to this position, Russia is continuing a tradition of friendship with Iraq which goes back to the 1960's. It has not always been an easy ride. But, as the BBC's Russian Affairs Analyst, Stephen Dalziel, reports, both countries have decided that maintaining close relations is in their mutual interest.

Much of Russia's behaviour in the current Iraqi crisis has reflected the Soviet Union's conduct in the build up to the Gulf War of 1991.

The emphasis on seeking a diplomatic solution. The insistence on maintaining close contact with Baghdad. And the stress laid on the need for all sides to respect United Nations' resolutions.

This consistency of approach towards Iraq goes back to the late 1960's. In the 'sixties, the Soviet Union waged a fierce campaign for the hearts and minds of the Arab world. This was partly for ideological reasons, as a way of spreading Communism, and partly to create a superpower counterbalance to the good relations between the US and Israel.

Because of its size, strategic position, and oil reserves, Iraq was a particular target for Soviet influence. In 1972, the USSR signed a treaty of friendship and co-operation with Iraq which has set the tone for relations ever since.

But things have not always gone smoothly, notably when the Iran-Iraq War broke out in 1980. At first, Moscow stopped what had become a regular supply of arms to Baghdad, although shipments were resumed in 1982.

By this time, Moscow's position over what was to prove an eight-year-long war was even more complicated, since the Soviet Union was encouraging other friendly states, such as North Korea, to supply arms to Iran.

By the time of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait on August 2, 1990, the reforms introduced by President Mikhail Gorbachov had made Soviet society more free. But they had also encouraged anti-Communist revolutions throughout eastern Europe, which had served to underline just how Soviet influence in international relations had shrunk.

Although Moscow failed to prevent war over Kuwait in 1991, it did emerge from the conflict with its relations with Baghdad intact. And even with the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union, post-Soviet Russia has seen fit to continue this situation.

Indeed, Russia's relations with Iraq show that it is determined to take a long-term view. Assuming that UN sanctions against Iraq will not last forever, Russia wants to be at the forefront of those countries which will be able to establish good working relations in the post-Saddam era. This suits Baghdad, too, since at the moment it needs all the friends it can get.

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