Venezuela's Chavez Plans to Visit Saddam

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CARACAS, Venezuela -- President Hugo Chavez took off yesterday for a tour of OPEC nations that will include the first visit by a foreign head of state to Iraq since the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

Yesterday was the 10th anniversary of the imposition of U.N. sanctions against Iraq for its 1990 invasion of Kuwait; and in the decade since not a single foreign leader has called on Saddam Hussein in his home territory.

Not until Chavez.

The Venezuelan leader has made a point of staking out an independent foreign policy -- forging a close friendship with Cuba's Fidel Castro, for instance, or praising Libya as a model of "participatory democracy."

Chavez's planned Thursday visit to Iraq appears linked to his desire to persuade poor nations to band together as a counterweight to what he sees as U.S. hegemony.

Chavez became president in February 1999, seven years after staging a failed military coup. Shaking up the status quo has been his trademark quality.

This week's trip to 10 oil-producing nations is part of Chavez's stated goal of strengthening the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries as a global force. Chavez plans to invite his Arab counterparts to a planned Sept. 27 OPEC heads of state summit in the Venezuelan capital, Caracas -- the first summit of its kind since 1975.

Venezuela, OPEC's only South American member, is the world's third largest petroleum exporter.

Chavez's itinerary this week includes visits to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Iran, Iraq, Indonesia, Libya, Nigeria and Algeria. …