WASHINGTON—In what may mark a turning point for rebuilding Iraq, France on Tuesday proposed suspending most United Nations sanctions on the war-ravaged nation, a move that would help free up billions of dollars in Iraqi oil earnings under U.N. control.
The surprising offer from France, the most ardent opponent of the U.S.-led war in Iraq, suggested that the Bush administration may have a freer hand to set Iraq on a new course now that a quick war has been won.
Even as France ceded ground, the White House rejected any return of U.N. weapons inspectors to Iraq, saying the nation remains too dangerous. It called on the U.N. Security Council to focus on lifting the sanctions.
"Why should any nation support imposing sanctions on the Iraqi people now? Sanctions equaled Saddam Hussein. Saddam Hussein is gone. It is wrong now to leave sanctions on the people of Iraq. They don't deserve it," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said.
At the United Nations, an organization wounded by its inability to agree last month on whether to go to war with Iraq, France's U.N. ambassador signaled that his nation is looking for a compromise.
Ambassador Jean-Marc de la Sabliere said he proposed immediately suspending "civilian" sanctions on Iraq and phasing out the oil-for-food program, which has collected $64 billion in Iraqi oil earnings since 1995 and distributed much of it for humanitarian needs. Civilian sanctions severely limit financial and trade transactions with Iraq.
The French envoy said weapons sanctions would remain in effect until Iraqi disarmament could be verified. Those sanctions limit Iraq's acquisition of biological and chemical weapons and other systems, such as medium-range missiles.
A U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said of France, "They've moved, but not all the way. At least the French are realizing that they needed to move."
The issue of whether U.N. weapons inspectors should return to Iraq remains crucial. Under Security Council resolutions imposed after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, U.N. sanctions cannot be suspended until U.N. inspectors say that Iraqi chemical and biological weapons, and missiles to deliver them, have been destroyed.
U.S. troops have scoured Iraq for the weapons of mass destruction that President Bush repeatedly declared were stockpiled there, to no avail so far.
The chief U.N. weapons inspector, Hans Blix, leveled withering criticism at the Bush administration Tuesday, suggesting that Washington and London built their case to attack Iraq last month on "shaky" evidence.
"Of course, it is conspicuous that so far they (coalition forces) have not stumbled upon anything," Blix said, adding that a renewed role for U.N. inspectors would give an "imprint of independence" to the hunt.
But several Bush administration spokesmen said the Security Council could vote to lift sanctions on Iraq without deploying weapons inspectors.
"The Security Council has the authority to decide what to do," said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher, who added that Iraq remains too perilous to allow roving U.N. teams.
A spokesman for U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Negroponte, Richard Grennell, said, "We see no immediate role for Dr. Blix and the (U.N. inspections) team."
The Pentagon has recruited current and former American, British and Australian U.N. inspectors to form a unit that would verify any weapons found.
France joined Russia, Germany and China in opposing the U.S.-led war to topple Saddam. France's change of posture on sanctions may help restart the flow of money to Iraq.
The Security Council is likely to decide in the next several weeks on an on-the-ground authority in Iraq that would be responsible for the resumption of oil pumping and then for oil sales.
The United Nations' oil-for-food program, which oversees the pumping and sale of Iraqi oil, was suspended before the war, and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan was given temporary authority to spend for humanitarian needs some $10 billion in oil proceeds that had been held in escrow from previous sales.
The broader objective of completely lifting all sanctions may take more time, perhaps until Iraqi authorities have assumed control of most aspects of the nation's governance from coalition forces.
Some international affairs experts argue for some kind of United Nations involvement.
"The sooner we can get U.N. flags on the ground doing everything from reconstruction to the establishment of legitimate governance to the search for weapons of mass destruction, the better off we will be," said Robert Galluci, the dean of the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University in Washington. "The American flag is in a sense a red flag. Internationalizing this as soon as possible should be our objective."
(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Jessica Guynn contributed to this report.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.