MOSCOW - Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tareq Aziz arrived in Moscow on Wednesday on a three-day visit in which Russia is expected to put pressure on Baghdad to allow U.N. weapons inspectors to return to Iraq, Interfax agency reported.
Aziz will hold talks with top Kremlin officials on easing international sanctions on Iraq in exchange for cooperation with the United Nations, diplomatic sources quoted by Interfax said.
The Russian Foreign Ministry and the Iraqi embassy in Moscow declined to comment on the visit.
U.S. President George W. Bush has warned Iraqi President Saddam Hussein that he would face consequences if U.N. inspectors were not allowed to return to Baghdad, triggering speculation the U.S. could target Iraq in its drive against terrorism following the September attacks on U.S. cities.
"In the light of recent events in the world, it is in Iraq's interests to decide as soon as possible to cooperate with the United Nations," an unnamed source quoted by Interfax said.
Russia, Iraq's closest ally on the U.N. Security Council, wants sanctions against Iraq eased once inspectors are allowed into the country.
The inspectors, who went to Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War to monitor the destruction of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, left in December 1998 and have not been allowed to return.
But the United States supports "smart sanctions", which would cut the list of goods requiring U.N. approval before reaching Iraq, while tightening controls over imports deemed usable for military purposes.
Iraq strongly opposes any revision of the sanctions, imposed following Baghdad's 1990 invasion of Kuwait.
"The only way out of the Iraqi problem is the Russian proposal, which is that Iraq's military programme must be subjected to international controls, and that in exchange sanctions will be eased," Konstantin Kosachyov, deputy head of the parliamentary foreign affairs committee, told Reuters.
Moscow hopes that scrapping the sanctions would help it recoup billions of dollars of Soviet-era debt.
Kosachyov estimates Russia has lost $30 billion during the decade of sanctions.
Aziz, arriving from the Syrian capital Damascus, is expected to remain in Moscow three days before flying to Beijing.