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The BBC's Barbara Plett
"Iraq views the visit as a crack in the wall of isolation"
 real 56k

Thursday, 10 August, 2000, 14:59 GMT 15:59 UK
Defiant Chavez arrives in Iraq
Saddam Hussein
Saddam Hussein made sure Mr Chavez had a warm welcome
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has become the first foreign head of state to visit Iraq since the end of the 1991 Gulf War, in defiance of strong opposition from the United States.


"What can I do if they [theAmericans] get upset? We have dignity and Venezuela is a sovereign country

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez
Mr Chavez is on a tour of 10 countries belonging to the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (Opec).

Venezuela currently holds the rotating presidency of Opec, and Mr Chavez is calling for closer political cooperation among the organisation's members.

Mr Chavez is inviting Opec heads of state to Caracas for a summit on 27 September, which would be the first such gathering for 25 years.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in Gulf
Mr Chavez (right) has been building links to the Arab world

He travelled to Iraq overland from the western Iranian city of Kermanshah, after talks in Tehran with President Mohammad Khatami of Iran.

He thus avoided violating the ban on flights to and from Iraq - part of the UN embargo imposed on Baghdad over its 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

Iraqi Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan and Oil Minister Amer Rashid were at the Iraqi border town of Al-Munziriya, 190km (120 miles) north-east of Baghdad, to welcome President Chavez.

US opposition

US officials described the visit as "inappropriate". They said it was a violation of United Nations political sanctions, as Mr Chavez had not sought advice from the UN sanctions committee before his visit.

"We do think it's a rather dubious distinction to be the first democratically-elected head of state to meet with the dictator of Iraq," said US State Department spokesman Richard Boucher.

"What can I do if they [the Americans] get upset?" President Chavez said, as he entered Iraq.

"We have dignity and Venezuela is a sovereign country. It has the right to make decisions it deems suit its interests."

Iraq denounced the US criticism as a case of "stupid interference" in other countries' affairs.

Cuban President Fidel Castro
Mr Chavez also has close ties with Cuba's Fidel Castro
An Iraqi Foreign Ministry spokesman said the visit was "another snub to the US leaders," and Mr Chavez would be the "dear guest" of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

Although the United States is a major importer of Venezuelan oil, many senior officials view Mr Chavez with suspicion because of his left-wing policies and close links with communist Cuba.

The Venezuelan leader has also previously called Libya - included in his itinerary - a "model of participatory democracy".

Independence

Observers say the trip once again shows Mr Chavez's eagerness to adopt an independent foreign policy for Venezuela.

Mr Chavez is extremely popular in his own country. Last week he was re-elected for a third term in office by a landslide, despite some protests from opposition groups over alleged voting irregularities.

Correspondents say he is no stranger to controversy, as a self-styled revolutionary who frequently urges developing nations to unite and stand up to the industrialised powers.

His tour has taken him to Kuwait, Iran, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates this week.

Unlike the other Opec states, Iraq is not part of the cartel's quota system, but it exports nearly 2.6 million barrels of oil daily under the UN oil-for-food aid programme.

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See also:

01 Aug 00 | Americas
Chavez promises revolutionary change
31 Jul 00 | Americas
Chavez: Visionary or demagogue?
06 Aug 00 | Middle East
US keeps grip on Iraq
10 Aug 00 | Middle East
Iraq: Breaching the isolation barrier
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