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The BBC's Bill Hayton
"The first foreign leader to break Iraq's international isolation"
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The BBC's Barbara Plett reports
"Mr Chavez received a red carpet welcome at the border"
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British campaigner against sanctions, Hugh Stephens
"I welcome any sign that the sanctions are beginning to be broken"
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Thursday, 10 August, 2000, 16:28 GMT 17:28 UK
Iraq greets defiant Chavez
Chavez with vice-president Ramadan
President Chavez was met by senior officials
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has been given a warm welcome in Iraq, at the start of a visit which has gone ahead despite US objections.

President Chavez, who is on a tour of 10 countries belonging to the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (Opec), ignored Washington's entreaties to leave Iraq off his agenda.

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

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez

He was given a red-carpet welcome at the border after arriving by car from Iran - becoming the first elected leader since the Gulf War to step onto Iraqi territory.

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

He was later flown by military helicopter to Baghdad airport - which remains closed to international flights under the terms of the United Nations embargo imposed after the Gulf War.

We salute him for his principled moral stand and his insistence to go ahead with this trip despite the silly American criticism

Iraqi newspaper al-Thawra
Washington says it is inappropriate for a democratically-elected leader like Mr Chavez to meet the Iraqi President, Saddam Hussein.

But Mr Chavez has reacted defiantly.

"What can I do if they get upset?," said Mr Chavez. "We have dignity and Venezuela is a sovereign country. It has the right to make decisions it deems suit its interests."

A BBC regional correspondent says Mr Chavez can afford to take his stance because America relies on Venezuela for much of its oil.

Iraq's Foreign Ministry has described Mr Chavez's visit as a slap in the face for the US, and said he would be the "dear guest" of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in Gulf
Mr Chavez (right) has been building links to the Arab world
Official Iraqi newspapers have praised Mr Chavez's courage in defying the US.

"We salute him for his principled moral stand and his insistence to go ahead with this trip despite the silly American criticism," al-Thawra newspaper said.

And the al-Iraq paper said Mr Chavez had decided to visit Iraq "even if he had to do it riding a camel."

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

The Venezuelan president challenges sanctions and decides to visit Iraq even if he had to do it riding a camel

Al-Iraq newspaper
He is inviting Opec heads of state to Caracas for a summit on 27 September, which would be the first such gathering for 25 years.

Observers say the trip once again shows Mr Chavez's eagerness to adopt an independent foreign policy for Venezuela, only a week after being re-elected by a landslide.

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 already taken him to Kuwait, Iran, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

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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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