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Last Updated: Thursday, 15 May, 2003, 19:30 GMT 20:30 UK
US considers Iraq sanctions deal
Basra Oil refinery in southern Iraq
Control of Iraq's oil is a major concern

The US says it may accept an initial suspension of UN sanctions against Iraq rather than press for an immediate end to them.

The move - announced by Secretary of State Colin Powell - is being seen as a concession to several veto-wielding members of the UN Security Council which resumes discussing a draft resolution on Thursday.

Permanent Council members have opposed lifting the sanctions until UN inspectors are allowed back to Iraq and declare it free of banned weapons, the alleged existence of which was Washington's main reason for launching a war.

Suspending sanctions would mean the UN maintained the power to reimpose them instead of, as some members fear, relinquishing control of Iraq's oil resources permanently to US-led administrators in the country.

In other developments:

  • In his first news conference since arriving in Iraq, top administrator Paul Bremer says restoring law and order will be his top priority - as well as dismantling the formerly ruling Baath party.

  • The southern town of Umm Qasr becomes the first town to be handed back to local people since the end of the US-led conflict.

  • US forces arrest several former members of the Iraqi regime in Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit, including a top official in the coalition's "most-wanted" list of 55 officials.

Local elections

The US secretary of state said the US was considering the suspension of sanctions following a visit to Russia, which is eager to protect billion-dollar oil contracts and debts owed by Iraq.

Speaking in Bulgaria, Colin Powell said Washington was anxious to move Iraqi oil in order to generate revenue, and lifting sanctions was the best way to do that.

"We will see what the argument is for suspending sanctions and see if that makes any sense," he said. "But our preference is to lift."

Russia, like other members, is looking at the formulas followed in the resolution
Igor Ivanov
Russian Foreign Minister

Russia, which is able to block any resolution, made clear during Mr Powell's visit that the success of any motion depended on resolving the issue of Iraqi debts and contracts agreed with the former government of Saddam Hussein.

"Very heated discussions on this topic are going on in New York... this question will be resolved. The fate of the resolution depends upon it," Deputy Foreign Minister Georgy Mamedov told reporters in Moscow.

Mr Powell has said that he was sure a new government in Baghdad would take fully into account Iraq's $8bn debt to Russia.

The sanctions were imposed on Iraq after its invasion of Kuwait in 1990: they allowed Iraq to sell its oil through the UN only in order to buy food and medicine.

Lifting them would enable the US and its allies to start exporting and selling Iraqi oil in exchange for a range of goods.

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