UNITED NATIONS — The U.N. Security Council gave a unanimous vote of confidence Wednesday to the significant strides Iraq has taken by lifting 19-year-old sanctions on weapons and civilian nuclear power.
The council also decided to return control of Iraq's oil and natural gas revenue to the government next summer and to settle all remaining claims over the controversial oil-for-food program, which helped ordinary Iraqis cope with sanctions imposed after Saddam Hussein's army invaded Kuwait two decades ago.
Although some sanctions will remain in place until Iraq and Kuwait settle outstanding issues from that war, Wednesday's vote was a major step to restore Iraq's international standing a year before the U.S. is to pull its last troops out of the country. It came a day after a power-sharing agreement ended a lengthy deadlock on forming a new Iraqi government.
Vice President Joe Biden, who presided over the meeting, told the council the move marked "an important milestone for the government of Iraq and people of Iraq in their ongoing effort to leave behind their troubled past and embrace a much brighter future."
"The three resolutions we've passed bring an end to the burdensome remnants of the dark era of Saddam Hussein," he said.
Biden's presence was a sign of the importance the Obama administration gave to the vote. The U.S. holds the Security Council presidency this month.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said the adoption of the resolutions "marks the beginning of the end of the sanctions regime and restrictions on Iraq's sovereignty, independence and recovery."
"Our key focus has been to unburden Iraq from the heavy legacy of non-compliance with international law and to break its isolation and regain its rightful place among the community of nations," he told the council.
Zebari said in an interview with The Associated Press that Biden's presence and the resolutions "showed continued American engagement with Iraq – that it's not abandoned."
Iraq has been pressing the Security Council for several years to end sanctions and cancel more than 70 resolutions adopted after Saddam's war against Kuwait.
Zebari said following the council's votes Wednesday only about a dozen resolutions remain, all related to outstanding issues between Iraq and Kuwait.
The council expressed confidence in Iraq's commitments to nonproliferation by lifting sanctions against acquiring weapons of mass destruction and long-range missiles or pursuing a civilian nuclear power program.
Iraq's constitution bars the country from acquiring weapons of mass destruction, and Baghdad is a party to most of the main nuclear, chemical, biological and missile treaties.
The council had said in February that it would lift the ban on Iraq's use of civilian nuclear power after it ratified several additional international treaties along with a protocol that allows the International Atomic Energy Agency to carry out unannounced inspections.
Iraq has not done so, mainly because of the failure to form a new government. On Wednesday, the council urged Iraq to ratify the protocol and the nuclear test ban treaty "as soon as possible." It also asked for a progress report in 12 months.
Zebari said in the interview that lifting these sanctions was "very, very significant" because it will enable the Iraqi ministries of higher education, health and agriculture to import technologies, pesticides and other materials that were banned because they had both civilian and military uses.
Ending sanctions will also enable the defense ministry to buy artillery or missiles with a range beyond 150 kilometers (90 miles), which "means that Iraq again would be a normal country like any other country," he said.
Zebari said every country should have the right to a civilian nuclear program, "but for a country like ours that has been the victims of Saddam's policies and belligerence and aggression and defiance, I think we'll think twice before going down any road close to that."
A second resolution, adopted unanimously, ends the international management of the Development Fund for Iraq on June 30, 2011. The fund was set up after Saddam's regime was toppled in 2003 to try to ensure that the proceeds of the country's gas and oil sales were used to help its people and restore its economy.
The resolution, which will end Iraq's immunity from claims on the proceeds, calls on Iraq to set up a successor mechanism. The resolution ensures that 5 percent of oil and gas revenue will still go into a compensation fund, used mainly to pay Kuwaiti claims from the war, according to a U.S. official who was not authorized to speak publicly.
The third resolution, terminating all remaining activities of the oil-for-food program, was adopted by a vote of 14-0 with France abstaining. France's U.N. Ambassador Gerard Araud said it "did not include all of the safeguards we thought was necessary for our support."
The resolution authorizes U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to ensure that $20 million from the account is retained in escrow until Dec. 31, 2016, for U.N. expenses related to ending the program, and another $131 million to meet all other activities related to the fund including outstanding contracts.
The council said the rest of the money in the program – which U.S. officials estimate at about $650 million – should be transferred to the Development Fund for Iraq "as soon as possible."
The oil-for-food program, which ran from 1996 to 2003, allowed Iraq to sell oil so long as most of the money went to buy humanitarian goods. It was aimed at easing Iraqi suffering under U.N. sanctions and was a lifeline for 90 percent of the country's population.
But an 18-month U.N.-sanctioned investigation led by former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker found massive corruption in the program. Its final report in October 2005 accused more than 2,200 companies from some 40 countries of colluding with Saddam's regime to bilk $1.8 billion.
In May 2003, weeks after the U.S. invaded Iraq, the council lifted economic sanctions, opening the country to international trade and investment and allowing oil exports to resume. In June 2004, the council lifted an embargo on the sale of conventional weapons to the government.
Iraq's outstanding issues with Kuwait include the major obstacle of demarcating their border as well as accounting for 600 missing Kuwaitis, returning missing property and archives, and the estimated $22 billion Baghdad owes Kuwait as reparations for the invasion.
Zebari told the council "there has been positive cooperation and exchange between our two governments to resolve and settle all pending issues," but he said "Iraq still has some way to go" reach a final agreement.
Saddam's invasion of Kuwait came as the country was just recovering from a draining eight-year war with Iran. Baghdad had long been a regional power and cultured society with the highest literacy rate in Arab world – but with violence lurking just under the surface.
A U.S.-led force drove Saddam's army out of Kuwait in the 1991 Gulf War, and the U.N. then imposed the sanctions. The second war – when a U.S.-led force invaded Iraq and toppled the regime in 2003 – was ostensibly to stop Saddam from developing weapons of mass destruction. Such weapons were never found.