Venezuelan President Meets Iraq's Saddam, Attacking US

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, on a groundbreaking visit to Iraq, has attacked US meddling and called for the international sanctions imposed against Saddam Hussein's government to be lifted.

Chavez emerged late Thursday from a meeting with Saddam, vigorously rejecting US criticism of his visit.

"We condemn and we regret the meddling in our internal affairs," Chavez told a press conference.

The first head of state to visit Iraq since the 1991 Gulf War received an ecstatic reception when he arrived Thursday, over land from Iran so as to avoid breaking an international air embargo.

He said his meeting with Saddam had concentrated on "the means to reinforce the role of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and to sign cooperation agreements between Venezuela and Iraq".

Chavez added that he had invited Saddam to attend the upcoming OPEC summit in Caracas.

Venezuelan Vice President Jorge Valero, accompanying Chavez, said that Saddam had not confirmed his participation at the summit, citing security concerns.

Chavez described Saddam as "a well-informed man who understands everything to do with OPEC. He listened to us very attentively and I had the honour to tour Baghdad in his car which he drove himself."

Asked about the UN embargo against Iraq, which has been in place since the Gulf War, Chavez replied: "We have called many times for the sanctions to be lifted... because what is happening in Iraq is unjust and we are happy that we are not the only ones who feel this way. France, Russia and China share our opinion."

In Washington earlier Thursday, US State Department spokesman Richard Boucher, denounced Chavez' trip.

"We think that the visit of a leader at this level bestows an aura of respectability upon Saddam Hussein which he clearly does not deserve based on his behavior in the past invading occupying neighboring countries and repressing his own people," Boucher said.

The US has hinted that Chavez may be in violation of UN sanctions should he spend any money on the trip, but said that unless an infraction could be found and proved by the world body, it was unlikely Caracas would face any punishment for the visit.

Venezuela is one of the leading sources of US oil imports.

At his press conference here, Chavez said he was not surprised by the US attitude to his groundbreaking visit.

"We say to the United States; don't panic. You have plenty of other problems to worry about, so don't place to much importance on this (visit)."

Upon his arrival in Iraq, Chavez immediately asserted Venezuela's right to pursue its own foreign relations agenda.

"Venezuela is a sovereign state that takes educated decisions that serve its interests," he told reporters after crossing the Iran border.

"Why are they (the Americans) offended? We are exercising our most absolute right."

People's Daily Online ---