WASHINGTON, Nov. 10 (AP) - It seemed like an unremarkable event - 11 Russian oil experts departing on a flight from Moscow last September. But this was no ordinary flight because its destination was Baghdad. The trip appeared to flout U.N. economic sanctions against Iraq and has emboldened other countries to follow suit, with dozens of visits since then.

``The embargo has started fizzling,'' Iraqi Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan said recently.

Robert Kagan of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace agreed, saying, ``The international sanctions regime is collapsing.''

The State Department disputes these assertions, cautioning against overemphasizing the importance of the increased traffic at Saddam Hussein International Airport.

``The basic sanctions regime remains in place and continues to work,'' said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher.

He says the Iraqis can bring an end to sanctions - imposed 10 years ago in response to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait - by meeting the standards for weapons inspections and monitoring that are spelled out in U.N. Security Council resolution 1284.

But there have been no weapons inspections in almost two years, and Iraq has shown no inclination to allow their resumption. U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan plans to talk to Iraqi leaders about that at a meeting of Islamic countries starting Sunday in Qatar.

The U.S.-led coalition of countries that liberated Kuwait from Iraqi occupation is now moribund. The Clinton administration, perhaps influenced by the lack of an international consensus to do battle with Iraq again, rarely mentions Iraq's refusal to cooperate with U.N. weapons inspectors.

Although the issue received minimal attention during the U.S. presidential election campaign, Kagan said he believes the next president will face an Iraq crisis.

``During the next administration, Iraq will get a missile and mount something deadly on it, which will have a cataclysmic effect on an already unstable Middle East,'' he said this week.

But Hans Blix, who heads a revised U.N. weapons inspection team that Iraq has spurned, says he does not believe Saddam has been trying to rearm.

For the time being, Saddam seems to be riding higher than at any time since the sanctions were imposed. He is benefiting from high oil prices, and a recent international trade fair in Baghdad left the impression among some that he is overcoming his international isolation.

According to Iraqi estimates, the fair drew foreign trade officials from 12 countries and 18,000 businesspeople from 45 countries.

Some were hoping to expand exports to Iraq under an exception to the sanctions that lets Iraq export oil as long as the proceeds are used to buy food, medicine and humanitarian goods for its people.

Others were positioning themselves to do business with Iraq once the sanctions are lifted. More than 100 French companies took part in the fair.

The Clinton administration has been fighting the increasingly widespread view that the Iraq sanctions are hurting the Iraqi people more than the Iraqi regime, a position embraced by Russia and France, both Security Council members.

Just days after the Russian flight landed in Baghdad, France gave the green light for a chartered Paris-Baghdad flight carrying some 60 physicians, athletes and artists.

The State Department, calling it a ``blatant violation'' of the sanctions regime, says that legally, international flights destined for Baghdad must be on a humanitarian mission and have prior approval from the U.N.'s Iraq sanctions committee.

France, along with Russia, says Security Council resolutions only require countries to notify the committee of a proposed flight, not to get its explicit approval.

Since the Russian and French flights to Baghdad, dozens more have followed, including some that have not sought committee approval.
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