Arab governments and their media claimed last month to have helped Iraq on the road to international rehabilitation by allowing it to chair the Arab League foreign ministers’ conference held in Cairo on September 11 - 12.
In fact, precisely the opposite is true. Iraqi foreign minister Mohammad Al-Sahhaf, was permitted to chair the 112th such session only because it was his turn by rotation and Baghdad had agreed in advance that it would ‘behave’ and not stray from a strict agenda carefully purged of all controversial issues, including the sanctions against Iraq.
Despite Baghdad’s promise, made when the session was scheduled, Ismat Abdul-Majid, the League’s secretary-general, and Egyptian foreign minister Amru Musa had met with Al-Sahhaf before the session started to ensure that he would honour Baghdad’s pledge. Musa said at a press conference on September 10 that Al-Sahhaf had promised that he would “work for a rational discussion” with other ministers.
Al-Sahhaf, no doubt believing that small mercies are better than none, was as good as his word, to the relief of other ministers, conducting the session precisely according to the pre-agreed agenda.
The Iraqis’ conciliatory approach was despite provocations from the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC), which had met in Jeddah before the conference to co-ordinate their position. They passed a resolution requesting Iraq to clarify its stance towards its neighbours, and to admit that its invasion of Kuwait was a breach of international law and and conventions, including the Charters of the UN and the Arab League.
The Iraqis’ stance is also in sharp contrast to their earlier position, when they had refused to attend League meetings - indeed, had stormed out of a meeting in January - because the condemnation of UN sanctions was not on the agenda.
The Iraqis have, however, reasons for their change of tune. Western and Arab countries are pressurising the Pope to change his plans to pay a private visit to Iraq for the millenium, which Iraq hopes will bring it credit and publicity. The Pope - who is neither Arab nor Muslim - appears prepared to visit Baghdad even though Iraq’s fellow Arab League members are not.
However, Iraq can be under no illusion that its lukewarm welcome at the League has any significance for the prospects of sanctions against it being lifted. The three members of the UN security council who have been critical of the US on this issue, France, Russia and China, have accepted the need for continued control over Iraq. This Iraq will not easily accept. And without this acceptance, there is no prospect of either the sanctions being relieved, or the daily bombing of Iraqi targets by US and British aircraft being reduced.
Thousands of people are continuing to die each month because of the west’s policies. The west does not care. Other Arab states do not care. The sad truth is that even the Iraqi government does not care. They are not hungry and they are not affected directly by the bombing; which is why they are happy to keep playing political games with no prospect of success. Meanwhile, Iraq’s people know better than to expect any improvement in their conditions, or any help from other Arab states.
Muslimedia: October 1-15, 1999