MOSCOW - Iraq's foreign minister and the head of a U.N. weapons inspection team both visited Moscow on Monday, meeting Baghdad's closest U.N. Security Council friends ahead of key talks on resuming weapons inspections.
Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, who met both Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabir and chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix, underlined support for "political" solutions in Iraq, language Moscow uses to warn Washington off threats of force.
But one of Ivanov's deputies also said Russia wanted Iraq to allow weapons inspections to resume, a sign there are limits to the cover Moscow is prepared to offer Baghdad.
Sabir is due to hold meetings in New York with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan on Wednesday. The Security Council is also due to vote, perhaps as soon as Tuesday, on the key issue of extending oil-for-food sanctions relief.
"There is a general understanding that there is a need for a complete political solution of the Iraqi problem," Ivanov told reporters after meeting Sabri. "Such a political solution is possible, and furthermore, this is the only way to resolve the Iraqi situation and create stability in the Gulf."
"Russia welcomes the renewal of dialogue between Iraq and the secretary-general, and we wish Mr Sabri success in his talks in New York."
Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Saltanov told Itar-Tass news agency it was important for inspections to resume so "the international community can be convinced that it is impossible to build weapons of mass destruction on Iraqi territory".
U.N. sanctions imposed on Iraq after it invaded Kuwait in 1990 require weapons inspectors to show Baghdad has destroyed chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programmes before it can resume normal trade.
The inspectors have not been permitted to return since leaving in 1998 ahead of U.S. and British airstrikes designed to punish Iraq for interfering with inspections.
Sabri said his talks with Annan would extend beyond the issue of weapons inspections. He would call for sanctions to be lifted, and discuss what he described as breaches of Iraqi sovereignty by the United States and Britain.
He also said he would raise the issue of "the huge potential of Israel in weapons of mass destruction".
Diplomats say Washington wants the Security Council to vote as soon as Tuesday on extending the oil-for-food programme, to show a united position on sanctions before Sabri and Annan meet.
The oil-for-food programme, which allows Iraq to export some oil in return for humanitarian supplies, must be renewed every six months.
In the past, the United States and Russia had argued over U.S. ideas for tightening the rules. But this time Washington and Moscow have hammered out an agreement in advance on new lists of goods that would require special approval.