Venezuelan President Meets Saddam Hussein

Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez held talks today with President Saddam Hussein in Baghdad, becoming the first head of state to meet the Iraqi leader face-to-face since the 1991 Gulf War.

Chavez’s visit to Iraq came in defiance of criticism from the United States, a major importer of Venezuelan oil, which is still trying to keep Saddam isolated a decade after his forces invaded Kuwait, sparking the 1990-91 Gulf crisis.

“We are very happy to be in Baghdad, to smell the scent of history and to walk on the bank of the Tigris River,” Chavez told a news conference shortly before midnight.

He said he was received warmly by Saddam who “honored” him by driving him around Baghdad. “I extend my deep gratitude to him for the warm welcome he gave us,” Chavez said through an interpreter.

Chavez, on a tour to invite the leaders of the 10 OPEC member states to a summit next month, said he had “fruitful” talks with Saddam on the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries’ future rule and defending reasonable oil prices as well as bilateral cooperation.

He said he found Saddam well versed in OPEC matters.

Red-Carpet Welcome

Chavez defended his visit against U.S. criticism. “We regret and denounce the interference in our internal affairs. We do not and will not accept it,” he said.

The Venezuelan president had crossed overland earlier in the day to Iraq from Iran at the Monthuriyah border post and was then flown to the international airport at Baghdad by an Iraqi military helicopter.

He was given a red-carpet welcome at the airport by Vice Chairman of the Revolutionary Command Council Izzat Ibrahim and other senior officials.

Baghdad’s international airport has not been used since the United Nations imposed stringent sanctions on Iraq after it invaded Kuwait in 1990. The embargo bans international flights to and from Iraq.

Chavez’s visit is part of a tour of all fellow OPEC states to promote the cartel’s first summit in 25 years in Caracas on Sept. 27-29 and to discuss OPEC production levels amid bullish world oil prices.

He said the results of his tour so far had been “absolutely positive” and hoped the Caracas summit would open a new chapter in OPEC’s 40-year history.

U.S. Concerned

Washington said earlier this week it was “deeply concerned” that the Venezuelan leader would become the first elected head of state to meet the Iraqi president since the invasion of Kuwait.

Jordan’s late King Hussein met Saddam in Baghdad during the 1990-91 crisis. The only senior figure to meet the Iraqi leader since was U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan in Baghdad in 1998.

Iraq’s Foreign Ministry said Wednesday Chavez’s visit was a slap in the face for the United States. The official Iraqi press hailed the trip today and praised Chavez’s courage in defying Washington.

“We salute him [Chavez] for his principled moral stand and his insistence on going ahead with this trip despite the silly American criticism,” the al-Thawra newspaper said.

The Al-Qadissia daily said the visit boded well for increased cooperation between OPEC members.

The Venezuelan president, accompanied by his Energy Minister and OPEC chief Ali Rodriguez, has already been this week to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Iran. He leaves Iraq Friday morning.

Iraq is exporting around 2.5 million barrels a day of crude as part of an oil-for-food program agreed with the United Nations. The program aims to alleviate the suffering of the Iraqi people hit by 11 years of strict economic sanctions.

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