Strikes expose policy of West

Ian Black asks if, despite the present action, there is any long-term plan to deal with Saddam

Thursday December 17, 1998

It was only ever going to be a matter of time before a new Iraq crisis erupted after the bombers were recalled in mid-flight last month. But the surprise yesterday as the war clouds gathered was how very quickly it has come.

With Bill Clinton facing impeachment and Muslims about to celebrate the holy month of Ramadan, the timing for Western air strikes could hardly be worse. Arabs and others who have already complained about the shadow of Monica Lewinsky over the Middle East will immediately suspect a diversion from problems at home.

But the world extends even beyond Washington's Beltway, and the United States and Britain, the leading hawks in this fight, would face a severe, perhaps fatal erosion of their credibility if they allowed the latest grim catalogue of Iraqi non-compliance with United Nations weapons inspections to pass without response.

Mr Clinton and Tony Blair were co-ordinating positions by telephone late on Tuesday as the president flew home from his Middle East trip and Richard Butler, the bluff Australian diplomat who heads the UN special commission, Unscom, was issuing his damning "no progress" report card on Iraqi behaviour.

Washington and London, moving carefully in a new cycle of threats, are united in insisting that they can strike without warning after Saddam Hussein's promise last month that he would allow unfettered access to the teams hunting down his deadly chemical and biological arsenal.

Was there a way back from the abyss for Saddam Hussein, Robin Cook was asked yesterday, in one of a spate of sombre media appearances designed to prepare the ground for action. "He has had many opportunities to pull back from the abyss and has failed to take those opportunities," was the Foreign Secretary's unadorned reply.

Significantly, there was no mention of negotiating or clarification of new conditions as no one wants another knife-edge mission by Kofi Anna, the UN secretary general, to secure a new agreement only to have it torn up a few weeks or months later.

But Russia, France and China, the rest of the UN Security Council's Big Five, remain just as opposed to the use of force now as they were in November, before the Iraqi leader's second 11th-hour climbdown of 1998.

Moscow and Paris were quick to express their alarm as the now familiar drum beat of warnings started up again, and one French official sneered at "Downing Street on Potomac" for its automatic support of the White House.

Russia's call for an emergency meeting of the Security Council signalled that it wants more jaw jaw to both precede and prevent war war, while its attacks on Mr Butler heralded new accusations that he is a tool of the US and Britain and supplying them with an excuse to open fire.

Yesterday's evacuation of the Unscom and other UN personnel from Iraq, as well as heavy hints from both capitals, was one clear sign that air or cruise missile attacks may be imminent, though this could all be intended to help concentrate minds in Baghdad and elsewhere.

But with or without military action, the US and Britain are now certain to insist that they will not conduct the long-promised "comprehensive review" of UN policy on Iraq as long as inspections are obstructed.

Yet no one can be certain that a new promise of Iraqi co-operation would be kept more scrupulously than previous ones, and that a crisis postponed at Christmas will not erupt again in the new year.

Years of experience have honed Iraq's ability to play cat and mouse with the UN inspectors: the elite, 600-strong Special Security Organisation, fiercely loyal to the president, is devoted exclusively to keeping documents, weapons components and even flasks of volatile nerve agents one step ahead of their pursuers. President Saddam wants to hang on to them for dear life: the billions of dollars of oil revenues he has foregone since 1990 are his measure of their value.

Inevitably, propaganda is being cranked up, but there is no disputing the fact that the Iraqi leader has uniquely used nerve gas against his own people - Kurds - and launched missiles against Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Iraq lambasted Mr Butler for a "bad" report that was "full of lies", though its depressing picture of deliberate obstruction, evasion and subterfuge was not new.

Ruthlessness of this kind is hard to combat. But as military analysts rehearsed the familiar lists of likely targets and the air and naval assets that constitute overwhelming US strength, many other old questions were still unanswered. What happens after the cruise missiles are launched and the bombers go in? Is their target the regime itself, the Republican Guard and other key security forces, or merely a series of punitive pinpricks?

Russia and France, both poised to strike up lucrative commercial relationships with Baghdad once sanctions are lifted, were outspoken in their criticism last month when the US, followed by a characteristically more cautious Britain, made its most explicit commitment yet to the overthrow of President Saddam - a far cry from the refusal to finish him off by supporting rebellious northern Kurds and southern Shi'ites after the Gulf war in 1991.

But if the US agenda is to destroy the regime, critics ask, what about the clear link between destroying banned weapons, Unscom's clean bill of health, and the lifting of sanctions that since 1991 have impoverished a once wealthy country and starved its people? And if there is no "light at the end of the tunnel", they say, what is President Saddam's incentive to co-operate? Keeping sanctions in place, many feel, simply prolongs the suffering of millions of ordinary Iraqis while a brutal and cynical regime remains insulated, importing luxury goods and creaming off the proceeds of UN-approved oil sales to feather the nests of the privileged.

For Iraq's exiled opposition, now being wooed in Washington and London, Western vacillation has been a source of rage rather than inspiration. Inside the country, resistance is desperate and lethally dangerous.

There is a sense that there is no strategy to deal with this most intractable of international issues, no answers even to the most fundamental questions: if air strikes are mounted, what will happen to Unscom and its seven-year struggle to catalogue, destroy and monitor Iraq's once formidable arsenal? If the inspectors go home will the US move to a new policy of containment to keep President Saddam in his box, but probably without sanctions, whose only legal justification is the UN disarmanent effort.

In the wider context, what about the rest of the Middle East? The US won strong support from Gulf Arab states in November partly because it had just pressured a reluctant Israel into accepting a new land-for-security deal with the Palestinians and thus neutralised charges of "double standards".

But with crisis looming over the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, despite Mr Clinton's triumphant visit to Gaza this week, the US could face fury - and retaliation - if it bombs Iraq again. And there is still no certainty that more punishment will hasten the end of Saddam Hussein

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Mr Clinton's triumphant visit to Gaza this week, the US could face fury - and retaliation - if it bombs Iraq again. And there is still no certainty that more punishment will hasten the end of Saddam Hussein

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