Russia begins airlift as Iraqi 'martyrs' march
By Nicolas Pelham in Baghdad
[Financial Times - 6 March]:
Would-be suicide bombers on Wednesday marched through the thoroughfares of Baghdad and helmeted Iraqi home guards drilled outside Baghdad's National Theatre, as the Russian embassy reacted to the expectation of war by beginning to airlift its 700 nationals left in Iraq.
Diplomats said the Russian embassy was evacuating hundreds of nationals over four days starting on Thursday. Russian observers in Iraq said these included scores of workers constructing an electricity plant at Youssifia south of Baghdad, and oil men drilling in exploratory fields near Kirkuk in northern Iraq. The Russian school in Baghdad closed last month.
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The announcement appeared to bring down the curtain at least temporarily on Russia's main trade and economic partner in the Middle East. Russian diplomats insisted their presence in Iraq would not be affected, but would not discuss prospects for their multi-billion dollar bilateral trade.
Russian experts say hundreds of Russian companies trade with Iraq, and that nearly half of Iraq's UN oil-for-food deal was sold through Russian companies.
The parade of 60 white-clad "martyrdom seekers" during the morning rush hour in the Iraqi capital emphasised the country's desperation in the face of a US attack, as United Nations weapons inspectors oversaw the crushing of a further nine al-Samoud 2 missiles. Iraq has now destroyed 28 of its 120-strong arsenal of what is believed to be its most sophisticated surface-to-surface missile.
A UN spokesman said inspectors had inspected an airfield, about 55 miles north of Baghdad, where Iraq had "flight-tested a remote-piloted vehicle". The US State Department accuses Iraq of designing drones to carry a biological weapon spray.
In his latest address to rally Iraqi troops, President Saddam Hussein criticised the UN weapons inspectors as the vanguards of American forces. Despite the US's nuclear-powered fleet, he said, "at the end of the day, its forces will have to get on their legs and into their tanks" to fight in Baghdad.
Since the arrival of the weapons inspectors three months ago, four foreign missions have pulled out of Baghdad. The US interests section closed a month ago, and Turkish diplomats went home last week. Spain withdrew its staff only to find its embassy occupied by Spanish "human shields".
The UN co-ordinator for humanitarian affairs, responsible for feeding Iraq under the oil-for-food programme, says only 500 of the 900 foreign staff on its payroll are at work in Iraq.
Russian interests include Lukoil, its biggest oil company, which signed a $20bn contract in 1997 to drill the West Qurna oilfield. Zarubezhneft was granted a multi-billion dollar concession to develop the bin Umar oilfield. However, Russia's stake in Iraq's oil was cast in doubt in December, after Iraq cancelled Lukoil's contract on the grounds that it had failed to start work on development.