The US’s long-planned war on Iraq moved a significant step closer on November 8, when the US succeeded in extracting from its reluctant allies in the UN a legitimising resolution providing it with a fig-leaf of legality for its plans to topple Saddam Hussain and occupy Iraq. That, of course, is not what the resolution says — it is couched in terms of permitting UN weapons inspectors to return to Iraq to ascertain that it does not have any weapons of mass destruction — but that is what it amounts to. As Crescent went to press, the Iraqi parliament was debating Baghdad’s response to the resolution, which Iraq has to accept unconditionally by November 15 in order to avoid immediate “serious consequences” — the first of a number of conditions and deadlines designed to give the US the grounds it needs to go in. Iraq’s probable meeting of this initial condition, which will open the door for the return of weapons inspectors to the country later this month (November 18 has been set as a provisional date), will only postpone the inevitable.
The heavy focus now being placed on Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction shows the West’s ability to determine the terms in which issues are debated. The briefest review of the US government’s policy toward Iraq shows that such weapons are not really a significant factor in its thinking. Even before George W. Bush was elected, hawkish Republicans were speaking of the need to complete the unfinished business of the 1990 Gulf War. When Bush came to power, pressure on Iraq was immediately increased. After the September 11 attacks, Iraq was linked with both al-Qa’ida and the anthrax panic in the US. As aggressive unilateralism came to dominate US thinking, Bush boasted of his plans for ‘regime change’ as part of his “war against terrorism”, although experts and nervous allies pointed out that there was no evidence of Iraqi involvement in terrorism. Only when Bush realized that even his allies were nervous about the US throwing its weight around without the pretence of proper procedure, and that there was considerable anti-war feeling in all western countries, including the US, have weapons of mass destruction and Iraq’s defiance of the UN suddenly become relevant.
Although the fact that the resolution was passed unanimously by the Security Council’s 15 members (the five permanent members with the power of veto, plus 10 others elected to the council on a rotating basis) was hailed as evidence of international solidarity, it was in fact the result of two months’ intense diplomatic wrangling, with the last two days spent arguing over just two words in the final draft. The result is a document that both sides — the US, which wanted authorisation to go to war without further reference to the UN once this resolution was passed, and the French, Russians and Chinese, who wanted the Security Council to meet again to authorise military action — can claim meets their requirements. The French now claim that the security council is at the heart of the decision on whether to go to war, because the inspectors would report back in case of Iraqi obstruction or non-cooperation. The US does not accept this interpretation, Bush saying in his response to the resolution that “the outcome of the current crisis is already determined.” He continued: “America will be making only one determination: Is Iraq meeting the terms of the Security Council or not? The United States has agreed to discuss any material breach with the Security Council, but without jeopardising our freedom of action to defend our country.”
Both sides know, however, that the US is the senior partner in its relations with the UN, and that when it does decide to act without reference to the UN, the UN will have no choice but to follow. For all the talk from the French, Russians and Chinese, it is inconceivable that they will lead any attempt to censure the US for acting unilaterally when it decides to do so, even if it were possible. When Bush agreed reluctantly to put the Iraq issue to the UN before acting against Saddam, he warned that the US would act unilaterally if necessary, rendering the UN irrelevant, and all parties know that that threat still stands, although the US has decided to play along with the UN for the time being.
Although Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction are the real heart of the issue, the UN inspectors now take centre stage. The UN’s chief weapons inspectors, Hans Blix and Mohammed El-Baradei, are expected to fly to Iraq shortly after Baghdad accepts the resolution, in order to set up communications, transport, offices and laboratories. Iraq had until December 8 to provide the inspectors with a complete declaration of all aspects of its military and civil chemical, biological and nuclear programmes; any misstatement or omission will be taken by the US as grounds for war. The inspectors will resume their work of verifying the Iraqi statement by December 23, and will then be required to report back to the Security Council within 60 days — by February 21, 2003. They will also be required to report immediately any Iraqi interference with their work, any failure to comply with the UN’s demands, or any false statements or omissions found in the Iraqi declaration. Officially, this would lead to the Security Council convening to discuss the issue, but the US has reserved the right to act without UN authorization, in which case the Security Council will effectively be convening to be informed of the US’s decision.
The question of accurate disclosure apart, the UN resolution also includes many other provisions that will be virtually impossible for Iraq to meet, thus providing Washington with the excuse it is seeking for military action. The resolution demands that Iraq grant weapons inspectors “immediate, unimpeded, unconditional, and unrestricted access to any and all, including underground, areas, facilities, buildings, equipment, records and means of transportation.” It allows them to declare no/fly-no/drive zones around any facility that they wish to enter, excluding people, vehicles and planes from the area. Finally, it provides for “sufficient UN security guards” to protect them — in other words, inspectors and armed foreign troops roaming the country at will.
The resolution further states that the inspectors will have “the free and unrestricted use and landing of fixed and rotary winged aircraft, including manned and unmanned reconnaissance vehicles.” The Iraqi regime is required to turn over any scientists or other officials whom the inspectors wish to interview. It specifies that the UN inspection agencies “may at their discretion conduct interviews inside or outside Iraq” and “may facilitate the travel of those interviewed and family members outside of Iraq”; in other words, the UN may arrest and remove from the country anyone it pleases. It also states that: “Iraq shall not take or threaten hostile acts directed against any representative or personnel of the United Nations or any member state taking action to uphold any council resolution.”
The opportunities these terms give for the US to provoke Iraqi action in order to justify its plans are obvious. The US is also reinforcing its military presence in the region, with troops, aircraft and warships now based in Turkey, Jordan, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the Persian Gulf, Saudi Arabia, Oman and the Horn of Africa. The head of US central command, general Tommy Franks, is due to arrive in Qatar later this month with 600 senior staff officers, ostensibly for week-long exercises. But the Pentagon has admitted that a working command post will probably be left in place when the exercises end.
Military sources say that 130,000 troops could be in the area by mid-December, along with all the equipment and support they need to occupy Iraq: January and February are regarded as the best time for military operations in the area. While the US’s politicians and diplomats set the scene, its military is preparing for action.