The Security Council will take up the thorny issue next week, and diplomats say the debate is likely to be long and difficult despite U.S. requests for quick action.
Lifting the sanctions is linked to U.N. certification that Iraq's weapons of mass destruction have been destroyed — and that issue is part of a broader debate on what the U.N. role will be in postwar Iraq. The sanctions question also hinges on the sensitive issue of the return of U.N. weapons inspectors.
Mexico's U.N. Ambassador Adolfo Aguilar Zinser, the current Security Council president, said Wednesday that members will be guided by two resolutions that establish the legal conditions for suspending and lifting sanctions.
The Security Council imposed sanctions banning all countries from importing any Iraqi goods, including oil, four days after Saddam's forces invaded Kuwait in August 1990. The sanctions were later modified to allow oil revenue to be used to buy food, medicine and other humanitarian items for the Iraqi people.
A key resolution in April 1991 called for the destruction of all Iraqi nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, and missiles with a range of more than 93 miles. The resolution set up a U.N. inspections commission to oversee the process. It stated that sanctions can be lifted only when the council has agreed that Iraq has completed disarmament.
In December 1999, the council adopted another resolution creating a new inspection agency and providing for the suspension of sanctions for renewable 120-day periods if U.N. inspectors reported that Iraq had cooperated "in all respects" with them and shown progress in fulfilling key remaining disarmament tasks.
Even before Mr. Bush urged the lifting of sanctions, the council scheduled a briefing on Tuesday by chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix, who has been in charge of the latest search for any Iraqi chemical and biological weapons and prohibited missiles.
Mexico's Zinser said that meeting will examine "what will be the next step to be taken by the inspectors and by the Security Council."
In an interview with a Spanish daily last week, Blix voiced deep frustration with the U.S.-led war, contending that the decision to fight rather than inspect was made months before the bombs started falling. It was not clear if those remarks would add to White House skepticism about U.N. inspections.
Secretary-General Kofi Annan ordered U.N. inspectors to leave Iraq along with the rest of the U.N. international staff for security reasons just before the U.S.-led war began on March 19, but he has pressed for their return as quickly as possible.
The United States, however, has fielded its own disarmament teams inside Iraq to search for weapons of mass destruction and has not invited U.N. inspectors to return. Instead, it has tried to hire away some U.N. inspectors.
So far, no chemical or biological weapons have been reported found, but the U.S. contends Iraq did fire missiles that exceeded the range limit.
U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte said U.S. officials in Washington were still discussing the specifics of lifting sanctions.
"We visualize some kind of a step-by-step procedure with respect to post-conflict resolutions regarding Iraq," he said. "Certainly one of the issues we're going to have to deal with early on is sanctions."
The Security Council was bitterly divided over the war, which it did not endorse.
Russia, France, Germany and China, which led the opposition, want the United Nations to play a major role in rebuilding Iraq, and diplomats said that will make any negotiations on lifting sanctions difficult.
Council diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Russia and other members are certain to press for U.N. inspectors to certify Iraq's disarmament and to have a role in continuing monitoring and verification. Before agreeing to any suspension or lifting of sanctions, many council members also want a better idea of what the U.N.'s future role will be, the diplomats said.
The sanctions on Iraq have been a source of contention for nearly a decade, and spurred criticism of U.S. policy on Iraq well before the current war was contemplated.
Iraq contends the sanctions have led to thousands of deaths. The U.S. disputes the Iraqi numbers and blames Saddam for any deaths, because his alleged defiance of weapons inspectors kept the restrictive measures in place.
The New York Times reports that ending the sanctions would open another way for the U.S. to pay for rebuilding Iraq, by allowing the country to sell more oil. The proceeds from those sales could be used to defray costs to the United States.