The U.N. Security Council on Tuesday unanimously approved a resolution that revamps sanctions against Iraq to allow more consumer goods into the country in order to ease the suffering of Iraqi civilians. U.N. sanctions have been in place against Iraq since its 1990 invasion of neighboring Kuwait.
The Security Council resolution still bans military supplies and civilian items that could have a military use. But it does broaden the list of consumer goods that can now enter Iraq.
Iraq experts like David Mack of Washington's Middle East Institute says that should make it easier for Iraqi citizens to live and harder for Saddam Hussein to blame his economic problems on the West.
"It still is an improvement over the current situation because it clearly puts the onus on the regime in Baghdad for any continued shortages of economic items in terms of imports into Iraq," he said.
In the past, the U.N. sanctions were blamed for crippling Iraq's economy. The U.N. implemented an oil-for-food program six years ago to ease the suffering of Iraq's population by allowing Iraq to sell oil in order to buy much-needed humanitarian supplies. The list of approved goods was extremely limited until this weeks' revision.
The Bush administration pushed hard for the revisions. James Phillips of the Heritage Foundation is not sure the U.N. action will have much impact on Baghdad's policies but he suggests the Bush administration's hard line approach has forced Iraq to resume conversations with U.N. officials.
"Iraq is trying to avoid confrontation over the fact that it has violated a U.N. ceasefire from the 1991 Gulf War and trying to stave off any U.S. military actions related to those violations, going so far as to re-engage the U.N. in discussions," he said.
The U.N.'s goal of getting U.N. inspectors back into Iraq still remains elusive. Baghdad kicked them out four years ago.
Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz also wonders how effective the inspectors would be after such a long absence. "It's been four years since inspectors were kicked out of Iraq and closer to five years that there were effective inspections there. And even when they were there it's been a difficult slog." he said.
Under the terms of the 1991 Gulf War ceasefire agreement, Iraq agreed to destroy its nuclear and toxic arsenals in order to lift trade and diplomatic sanctions that were imposed after its 1990 invasion of Kuwait. The inspectors often accused Baghdad authorities of trying to block or mislead their teams.
Kuwaiti political scientist Shafeeq Ghabra says the U.N. decision to ease sanctions now should play well on the Arab street. But he says opponents of Saddam Hussein both inside and outside Iraq will want to see how this could help their effort to remove him.
"The philosophy behind all of this is empowering the people of Iraq. The question becomes is this one step out of many or the last," he said. "If this is one step out of many then the people will expect more attempts to reach out to the people of Iraq, to empower them in the context of movements, of caring, of supporting Iraqi opposition and voices that are democratic and seeking democratic changes."
Middle East analysts say the unanimous U.N. Security Council decision also has thwarted efforts to eliminate sanctions altogether.
France and Russia, among the Security Council permanent members, have favored lifting the trade embargo. The United States and Britain insist that maintaining pressure on Baghdad will help force changes there.
Mideast analyst Phillips says the overhaul of the sanctions regime relied in part on Russia's changing attitudes. "What made this change in Iraqi sanctions is the fact that Russia changed its attitude in sanctions against Iraq and this is part of the growing cooperation between the U.S. and Russia," he said. "And hopefully, that cooperation can lead to even tighter sanctions on Iraq in the future."
In fact, the new system will ease restrictions for hundreds of millions of dollars worth of Russian exports to Iraq.