The threat of a Russian veto forced the U.S. and Britain to abandon a proposed overhaul of sanctions against Iraq and extend the current oil-for-food program Tuesday. While the delay was a victory for Iraq, the country faced its own problem--the defection of two senior diplomats.
The U.S. and Britain had won the support of 14 of the 15 Security Council members for their plan to ease commercial exports to Iraq while tightening controls on goods with potential military uses. But strong objections from Russia, Iraq's strongest ally and business partner on the council, sent the proposal back to the drawing board.
Russian Ambassador Sergei V. Lavrov said there were "too many unanswered questions" about what Iraq would have to do to win suspension of sanctions.
Iraq has refused to discuss anything short of total elimination of the sanctions, which were imposed after the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
Postponement is a setback for the Bush administration, which has made revamping the sanctions one of its highest foreign policy priorities. It may give ammunition to Pentagon hard-liners who argue that trying to deal diplomatically with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's regime is a waste of time.
But both the British and U.S. ambassadors said that they will use the next five months, while the oil-for-food program continues, to consolidate support in the Security Council.
"I'm struck how out of step Russia is with the rest of the council," said acting U.S. Ambassador James Cunningham. "The real losers here are the Iraqi people."
Iraq stopped oil exports to protest a June 1 council resolution to consider the new plan, and it threatened to keep the spigot shut if Tuesday's resolution mentioned the new proposals. Iraqi Ambassador Mohammed Douri declined to say if Baghdad would resume exports.
Baghdad's last attempt to inflict pain on the world market failed. Instead of its driving up the cost of oil, prices actually dropped by $3 a barrel after Iraq's cutoff, and Iraq lost $2 billion in potential oil sales last month, oil analysts calculated. On Tuesday, OPEC ministers meeting in Vienna decided not to increase production quotas, saying there is enough oil on the world market.
While Iraqi newspapers hailed a symbolic victory over the U.S. and Britain in the U.N., the mood at the Iraqi mission was quite different. News of the defections of two senior diplomats buzzed through the U.N.
On Friday, Iraq's deputy ambassador, Mohammed Humaimidi, finished his day's work at the U.N., then walked into a police station near the U.N. and asked for political asylum for himself, his wife and a child, police officials said Tuesday.
His defection came two weeks after another Iraqi diplomat, Fela Hesan Rubaie, the No. 4 official at the mission, failed to show up with his family for his flight home to Baghdad. He and his family have also requested asylum, diplomatic sources said.
According to a friend, Rubaie is a career diplomat who served in Vietnam, Kenya and Italy before coming to the U.N., and his defection caught colleagues at the mission by surprise.
"If someone wants to stay, what can we do?" Douri told Associated Press. Douri confirmed that the diplomats were among four officials at the Iraqi mission who had finished their assignments and were scheduled to return to Baghdad, but he did not confirm that the two had defected.
U.S. officials would not verify Rubaie's asylum request but confirmed that Humaimidi had defected, noting that he dealt frequently with U.S. envoys at the United Nations.
"He's pretty significant. He's an important member of the mission," said a senior State Department official.
U.S. officials predict that a high-level Iraqi diplomat could make a strong case to justify a request for asylum. If he was denied asylum after attempting to defect, he would face certain persecution and perhaps death if he returned to Iraq.
Two of Hussein's sons-in-law defected to Jordan along with the Iraqi leader's daughters in August 1995. They were lured back in February 1996 after receiving assurances that they would not be punished. But within three days of their return, the men were dead.
"All Humaimidi has to do is explain that if he goes back, he will face persecution--maybe because he failed to execute his job or because he's under suspicion for some action. With Baghdad's reputation, his claim will have high credibility," a U.S. official familiar with the case said Tuesday.
The process of asking for asylum is not straightforward, and it could be several weeks before Humaimidi's fate is decided.
He will first have to go before an immigration judge, who will listen to his claims and decide if there is enough evidence to support them. If so, the judge will schedule a formal hearing.
The State Department, which is likely to be asked for its opinion of Humaimidi's claims, said Tuesday that it would concur on the dangers of his returning to Iraq.
U.S. officials and analysts say the defections are a major embarrassment for Hussein.
"This must be particularly embarrassing, as it comes at a time when Saddam thought he was scoring a victory, with the U.N. voting on a new sanctions resolution postponed and the Russians threatening a veto of it," said analyst Henri Barkey, who was formerly on the policy planning staff of the State Department and is now at Lehigh University. "To suddenly have people from his U.N. mission ask for asylum is embarrassing. It will take the focus away from his claim of victory.
"It shows that even people who are part of the regime and in high positions feel insecure and will take any opportunity to defect rather than go back. It also gives credibility to opposition claims that there are people within the regime who want change," Barkey said.
Farley reported from the United Nations and Wright from Washington.