Intoxicated by the devastating display of America’s military juggernaut in Afghanistan, senior US officials have been issuing bellicose statements about Iraq. President George W Bush joined the chorus on November 26 when he warned Iraqi president Saddam Hussein to readmit UN arms-inspectors or face unspecified consequences. “As for Saddam Hussein, he needs to let inspectors back in his country to show us that he is not developing weapons of mass destruction,” Bush said. Asked by a reporter what would happen if Saddam refused, Bush responded cryptically: “He’ll find out.”
Does that necessarily mean that a full-scale campaign against Iraq is round the corner? Not really. While expanding the “war on terrorism” to include the goal of toppling Saddam might be desirable for the White House, many factors mitigate against their pursuing this course of action, at least soon. Secretary of state Colin Powell said that reports that “something is on the verge of happening” militarily against Iraq “has no particular underpinning substance to it.” Yet he was quick to warn that Saddam “should be worried,” adding that “regime change” continues to be a US foreign policy goal as it is “in the best interest of the Iraqi people.”
Speculation has been rife since the start of Bush’s campaign against Afghanistan about the next target of Washington’s “war on terrorism.” Iraq figures prominently on the list of potential targets. But Washington has yet to produce clear evidence linking Baghdad to the attacks on September 11. The absence of such evidence might explain why Bush framed his warning to Saddam within the ambit of Iraq’s arsenal of weapons of mass destruction rather than links to September 11.
Arms inspections ended in December 1998, when the US and Britain launched four days of air strikes to punish Baghdad for expelling the UN inspectors after revelations that some of them were working as agents for the CIA. Ultimately the 1998 showdown produced a stalemate favourable to Washington’s goal of keeping the pressure on Baghdad. UN sanctions could only be lifted once weapons inspectors proved that Iraq has no nuclear, biological and chemical weapons programmes, but Iraq would neither allow the weapons inspectors back nor cooperate without the sanctions regime being ended. The stalemate allowed the US to keep the sanctions regime in place and to continue its war of attrition against Iraq.
Iraq remains defiant about the UN inspectors. Iraqi deputy prime minister Tariq Aziz rejected Bush’s call for Baghdad to readmit them, asking rhetorically: “Why should we bring spies into Iraq to spy on us, to spy on our headquarters where we work and on our legitimate military activities just to please Mr Bush or the US administration? The answer is no.”
There is no consensus in the Bush administration itself over how to deal with the long-festering Iraqi imbroglio. Administra-tion “doves,” led by secretary of state Colin Powell, have been calling for an approach that ostensibly reduces the effects of the sanctions on the Iraqi people and concentrates them on the regime. On the other hand the hawks, led by deputy secretary Paul Wolfowitz and senior member of the Defence Advisory Board Richard Perle, both right-wing Zionists, have long been itching to attack Iraq, combining intensive air-strikes and ground troops assisting the opposition Iraqi National Congress (INC) in the south and Kurdish groups in the north, with an eye to deposing Saddam. Yet transforming the ineffective, fractious Iraqi opposition into a sturdy contra-style movement has so far proved difficult. That the opposition is weak and fragmented to the point of utter ineffectiveness deprives the US of a proxy army like the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan to provide foot soldiers and cannon fodder.
In addition, the power vacuum that would result in a post-Saddam Iraq has been weighing heavily on any such decision over Iraq. It could presage the disintegration of the country and ultimately require a protracted ground intervention by tens of thousands of US troops, with the possibility of American casualties. That is not consistent with Washington’s reluctance to commit troops to complex and dangerous missions overseas. The Afghan operation has not so far suggested American willingness to tolerate high war casualties.
Until September 11, the “doves” had prevailed in the policy debate, but they seem to have been losing ground gradually since. The “hawks” are pointing to Afghanistan as evidence of the effectiveness of a merciless US air campaign in toppling a hated regime when combined with indigenous proxy forces. Pressure for a plan of action against Iraq has also been coming from congress. For instance, in a letter addressed to Bush on December 5, ten leading members of congress urged the president to make Iraq the next target in the US “war on terrorism,” saying: “As we clean up Afghanistan, it is imperative that we plan to eliminate the threat from Iraq.” The lawmakers also called for extending humanitarian assistance, information-gathering material and military training to the INC, saying that the current US involvement in Afghanistan underlines the importance of working effectively with local opposition groups on the ground. The letter, whose signatories include Senate minority leader Trent Lott, House International Relations Committee chairman Henry Hyde, ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Jesse Helms and former Democratic vice-presidential candidate Senator Joseph Lieberman, came as senior INC leaders visited Capitol Hill, where they held meetings, including one with the Republican policy conference.
Currently, there is almost unanimous international consensus against the “Iraq next” proposition. Washington has been finding it extremely difficult to garner as much international support for a campaign against other “villains” on its war roster, such as Iraq, Somalia, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen or Sudan, as it did for its military action in Afghanistan. A unilateral military action against Iraq could tear the US-led “anti-terrorism” coalition asunder. The US has been urged by Russia and its European allies, including Britain, Washington’s closest anti-Iraq ally, not to force a military confrontation with Iraq. Speaking to reporters in Cairo, Nikolai Kartuzov, Russian envoy to the Middle East, said on December 2 that Moscow believes diplomacy is the only way to solve the arms-inspections impasse. Geoff Hoon, Britain’s defence secretary, said that he had not seen “any evidence to link Iraq directly with Al-Qa’ida” and justify an attack on Iraq.
A ground invasion of Iraq would only be possible if neighbouring Arab states as well as Turkey and Iran approve of it. Turkey has given mixed signals. Prime minister Bulent Ecevit and foreign minister Ismail Cem have reportedly cautioned against the disintegration of Iraq. But national defence minister Sabahattin Cakmakoglu indicated on November 28 that unspecified new conditions might bring new assessments onto Turkey’s agenda. The statement was made just one day after a meeting of the National Security Council, dominated by the country’s all-powerful military establishment.
For now, the veiled threats by Bush administration officials against Iraq have triggered alarm-bells in Arab capitals. Arab countries have by and large been unanimous in opposing the targeting of any Arab state in America’s “war on terrorism.” Syrian foreign minister Farouq al-Shara’a warned on November 27 that “any strike against an Arab country, wherever it comes from, will bring on endless problems.” He added: “America knows it, Europe too, and I think that striking out at any Arab country would be a fatal mistake.” In Cairo, Arab League secretary general Amr Musa was more specific. On November 27 Musa warned that a military operation against Iraq “would mean the end of the understanding on how to fight against terrorism.” Arab participation in the “anti-terrorism” coalition has so far included political support, exchanges of intelligence and a plan to send Jordanian troops to Afghanistan under the auspices of the UN.
At a meeting in Riyadh on November 29, the pro-American monarchs of Jordan and Saudi Arabia joined the chorus of Arab opposition to a campaign against Iraq, warning of the dangers of such a move and pledging to act to prevent it. What worries many Arab regimes is not that Saddam is still in power, but that a US military action might undermine the convenient equilibrium he has been able to impose by his reign of terror. Coupled with the ongoing escalation of Israeli repression against the Palestinian people, such a strike also has the potential of igniting the whole region.
The most notable aspect of statements on Iraq coming from Washington is that they are open-ended. The passing on November 29 of the latest UN Security Council resolution extending sanctions against Baghdad buys time for Washington to build enough international support for a confrontation with Iraq using UN resolutions as a basis. The resolution became possible after Russia and the US reached a compromise that would delay the overhaul of the sanctions but pledge to revise the embargo in six months. Under the deal, Russia agreed to approve by June 1 a new “goods review list” cataloguing imports defined as having both military and civilian purposes that council members would have to approve separately. Civilian goods not on the list do not have to go through such procedures. This was a key element in earlier US-British proposals to revise the sanctions, which Russia has consistently refused to approve in the past. In June the threat of a Russian veto blocked British and US plans for “smart sanctions” designed to strengthen the leaky embargo which has cost the lives of more than 1.5 million Iraqis. The fact that Moscow agreed this time round to go along with a resolution that paves the way for transforming the embargo into “smart sanctions” underlines the change in US-Russian relations since September 11.
Russia’s willingness to go along with the Bush administration in its pursuit of a tough policy on Iraq was not lost on Baghdad. An editorial in Babil, an Iraqi newspaper owned by Saddam’s eldest son, ‘Uday, charged that international powers who oppose a US attack on Iraq are “motivated by mere trade interests, rather than any ethical or humanitarian considerations” (December 1, 2001). This was a reference to Russia and France, who have made no secret of their commercial interests in Iraq.
The recent UN resolution effectively defers decisions on Iraq until June. By then Washington’s ability to use the UN as a cover for its campaign against Iraq will depend on how Russia’s new relationship with the US develops and how Iraq’s ties with its neighbours look. In the meantime, the Bush administration has reportedly ordered the CIA and its military leaders to draft plans for a large-scale operation. The trigger for such an operation will be Baghdad’s refusal to readmit weapons inspectors, rather than its role in supporting “terrorism.” Meanwhile, a limited campaign to destabilise Saddam, combining air strikes with covert action, remains Bush’s second-best option.