Russia Concerned Over Iraq Strikes

RUSSIAN diplomats continue to support the strategy of forcing Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to comply with United Nations sanctions, but are starting to question the use of coalition force against Iraq.

Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev Jan. 19 called for an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council to discuss the increasingly volatile situation in the Persian Gulf.

Mr. Kozyrev's request, which the Council agreed to, is an indication of Russian concern that the US-led military effort against Iraq may be exceeding its UN mandate. In Washington, US officials say Russian Ambassador Vladimir Lukin has made a formal request that Russia be consulted in advance of any future coalition air raids on Iraqi targets.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembsky Jan. 19 criticized the recent air attacks on Iraq for causing too many civilian casualties. (Baghdad says 43 have been killed.) "The reaction was not in proportion" to Iraq's misbehavior, he said.

Since Jan. 13, coalition forces have launched several attacks against targets in Iraq in response to violations of UN sanctions - including sending raiding parties into neighboring Kuwait and establishing anti-aircraft batteries in the so-called no-fly zone in southern Iraq.

Viktor Gogitidze, an official in the Russian Foreign Ministry's Middle East Directorate, expressed doubt that Iraq could be compelled militarily to change its behavior, adding that coalition raids are becoming "counterproductive," the Interfax news agency reported. "Military strikes are not always effective," Mr. Gogitidze said. "In this case with every strike, Iraq has hardened its position."

A statement issued Jan. 18 by the Russian Foreign Ministry voiced concern about the safety of the 60 Russian nationals still living in Baghdad. The Foreign Ministry also repeated its call for Iraq to comply with UN sanctions.

"The keys to normalization of the situation are in Baghdad, which has repeatedly ignored warnings," the statement said. "It should be clear that the way out is in full implementation of UN Security Council decisions."

Russia's backing for the coalition raids has exacerbated domestic political tension between Russian President Boris Yeltsin's reform-minded government and his nationalist and conservative political opponents, who oppose cooperation with the West as not being in Russia's best interests.

Referring to the situation in Iraq, nationalist legislator Sergei Baburin said: "A group of countries is imposing conditions on a sovereign state. We cannot share with these countries the responsibility for the reckless violation of international law."

One nationalist politician, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, has announced the formation of a volunteer detachment comprising Russians, including veterans of the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, that is ready to go serve Saddam, Interfax reported.

The domestic political conflict over Russia's position on Iraq follows a similar clash over Moscow's support for UN sanctions against Yugoslavia. Cooperation with the West over Yugoslavia cost the Russian government scarce political capital in its struggle to overcome conservative opposition to the implementation of radical economic reforms. Serbia, the leader of the rump Yugoslav state, is a traditional Slavic ally of Russia.

Despite the domestic opposition, Russian leaders remain firm on making Saddam comply with UN measures, Alexander Novozhilov, chairman of Iraq Department in the Russian Foreign Ministry's Middle East Directorate.

"We're not against Iraq, but in support of the resolutions of the UN," Mr. Novozhilov told the Monitor.

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