Last November, Moscow agreed to a six-month rollover of the UN oil-for-food programme in return for US agreement to look again at UN resolution 1284, which calls for a suspension of sanctions if Baghdad permits weapons inspectors back into the country. Traditionally one of Iraq’s closest allies, Russia has had to tread a delicate line in its position as one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council.

Aziz’s trip to Moscow is part of a concerted diplomatic push by Baghdad. On 18 January, Amr Moussa, secretary general of the Arab League, paid a 24-hour trip to Baghdad, the first by an Arab League head since the 1991 Gulf War. During his visit, Moussa met President Saddam Hussein who asked Moussa to convey a new initiative to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan.

The sense that Iraq is on a diplomatic offensive has been reinforced by its recent overtures towards traditional enemies and rivals. A senior Iraqi official announced on 19 January that Baghdad was prepared to allow a Kuwaiti delegation to visit Iraq to verify that there are no missing Kuwaiti prisoners of war held in Iraqi prisons. Kuwait says Iraq is still holding at least 90 of its nationals after the Gulf War and the issue is a major impediment to the normalisation of relations between the two countries.

Iraq is also softening its stance towards Iran, which has recently agreed to release nearly 700 Iraqi prisoners. On 23 January, Iraq announced that Tehran would resume commercial flights to Iraq, a step that is likely to open the door to further economic co-operation. The move is expected to anger the US, which considers civilian flights to be an economic activity banned under the sanctions. France and Russia, however, say Iraq does not require special permission from the sanctions committee for commercial air traffic.