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Thursday, August 10, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Venezuelan president's visit to Iraq angers U.S.

The Associated Press

BAGHDAD - Iraq showed its delight yesterday at the first visit by a head of state since the Persian Gulf War, calling the planned arrival of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez a "slap in the face" at the United States.

The Foreign Ministry said Chavez was coming "as a dear guest of Iraq's leader and Iraqi people," the official Iraqi News Agency said.

Chavez, on a tour of fellow members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), was to cross into Iraq from Iran today by car, ducking a U.N. ban on flights to the country.

He will meet with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, becoming the first world leader to do so since Iraq invaded Kuwait and then was driven out in the 1991 war.

U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Monday it was "particularly galling" that the first such visit is being made by a leader who is democratically elected.

Still, the visit does not violate U.N. sanctions as long as Chavez travels by land to Iraq. So U.S. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke has not raised the matter before the U.N. sanctions committee and likely will not, U.S. officials said yesterday.

Iraqi authorities say they intend to give Chavez red-carpet treatment.

A military band will play the national anthems of both Iraq and Venezuela.

Chavez's meeting with Saddam is part of a 10-day tour to invite OPEC leaders personally to a Sept. 27 summit in Caracas - the first of its kind since 1975.

Yesterday, Chavez was in Qatar, where he met with its leader, Emir Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, before moving to the United Arab Emirates, where he held talks with President Sheik Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. He then headed to Iran.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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