WORLD/COVER

THE ENDGAME

AN IRAQI PEACE OFFER, ALTHOUGH REJECTED, RAISED NEW HOPES FOR A SETTLEMENT

CARL MOLLINS February 25 1991
WORLD/COVER

THE ENDGAME

AN IRAQI PEACE OFFER, ALTHOUGH REJECTED, RAISED NEW HOPES FOR A SETTLEMENT

CARL MOLLINS February 25 1991

THE ENDGAME

AN IRAQI PEACE OFFER, ALTHOUGH REJECTED, RAISED NEW HOPES FOR A SETTLEMENT

WORLD/COVER

The Revolutionary Command Council has announced Iraq’s decision to deal with United Nations Security Council Resolution 660 for the year 1990 with the aim of reaching an honorable and acceptable solution, including the withdrawal.

—Iraqi News Agency, Baghdad, Feb. 15

When I first heard that statement, I must say I was happy that Saddam Hussein had seemed to realize that he must now withdraw unconditionally from Kuwait, in keeping with the relevant United Nations resolutions. Regrettably, the Iraqi statement now appears to be a cruel hoax, dashing the hopes of the people in Iraq and, indeed, around the world.

—President George Bush, Washington

The time between the first news flash from Baghdad and the reaction in Washington compressed all of the human highs and lows that, for 28 weeks, had been an

emotional undercurrent driving the Gulf crisis since Iraq seized neighboring Kuwait last Aug. 2. Barely 200 minutes elapsed between “solution” and “hoax,” between a truce and more war, between hope and foreboding.

With the flicker of optimism all but snuffed

out, the U.S.-led military forces in the Gulf War pounded home the anti-Iraq coalition’s dismissal of the truce proposal with heavy bombing raids and, in preparation for a threatened ground war, activated such artillery superweapons as the multiple launch rocket system, bombarding Iraqi forces in Kuwait with rockets that each blast more than 600 armor-piercing grenades onto the enemy. Iraq continued to fire Scud missiles into Israel and Saudi Arabia—including two into the southern part of the Jewish state for the first time—but they fell harmlessly on open areas, military authorities said.

In their swift rejection of Iraq’s ceasefire statement, coalition leaders cited a list of conditions that Iraq attached to its proposal. But Baghdad’s offer raised for the first time the possibility—as Bush noted—that President Saddam Hussein would even consider pulling his army out of Kuwait. As a result, belligerents in the Gulf War, and others on its political periphery, sought to discover whether some-

thing solid could be salvaged from Iraq’s statement and the U.S. rejection—or, as some said, that exchange deserved its dismissal as mere salvoes in the war’s propaganda battle.

Hostile: Both Iraq’s truce overture and the U.S. response included pugnacious, even personally hostile, paragraphs. Bush, in his formal retort, which was written into a Washington speech to a group of scientists, invited the overthrow of his Iraqi counterpart. Said the President: “There is another way for the bloodshed to stop, and that is for the Iraqi military and the Iraqi people to take matters into their own hands, to force Saddam Hussein, the dictator, to step aside, and to comply with

the United Nations resolutions, and then rejoin the family of peace-loving nations.”

And the statement issued by the Iraqi news service concluded: “This is the case which we put before the world and we state it clearly and plainly to the perfidious, the treacherous and their imperialist masters. Our basic guarantee, after relying on God, the one and only, remains in our great Iraqi people and our brave and combatant armed forces.”

But like ancient soothsayers, diplomats and political analysts examined the entrails of Baghdad’s full 1,000-word statement and Bush’s terser response, less than half that length, for any signs that positions might shift. At the United Nations in New York City, where the Security Council debated the Gulf War in a rare closed session,

India’s Ambassador Chinmaya Rajaninath Gharekhan, for one, described Iraq’s offer as “a very positive development which opened up possibilities that need to be explored.”

There were even some indications among the coalition members themselves, including Canada, of hedging their dismissals of Iraq’s proposal—if only as a gesture to public opinion and the senti-

ments of friendly governments. While Prime Minister Brian Mulroney denounced Iraq’s proposal as a diversion with “malicious intent,” External Affairs Minister Joe Clark expressed the hope that “something more” might evolve from Iraq’s statement that it is prepared to withdraw from Kuwait. And Bush, who dismissed the Iraqi statement as “dead on arrival” before heading for a seaside weekend break in Kennebunkport, Me., is reported to have responded positively to a request from Soviet

President Mikhail Gorbachev to delay a ground attack until after scheduled exploratory talks between Soviet officials and Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz on Feb. 18 in Moscow.

That assurance came about despite sharply different policy aims in the White House and the Kremlin. Many analysts say that Bush’s underlying goals in the Gulf War include the removal of Hussein and the destruction of his military machine. Indeed, Washington officials use the term “nightmare scenario” to describe an outcome that leaves Hussein in power and his army undefeated in battle.

Gorbachev, as Maclean’s Moscow Bureau Chief Malcolm Gray re-

TV IMAGES OF CORPSES ILLUSTRATED THE HUMAN COST OF WARFARE

ported, clearly aims to maintain Moscow’s long-standing relations with Baghdad and make sure that Soviet interests are protected in a neighboring region whose people share Islamic cultural traditions with millions of Soviet citizens. Although Moscow has stressed that Iraq must withdraw unconditionally from Kuwait, Soviet officials say that they are increasingly concerned that the U.S.-led coalition does not intend simply to free Kuwait of Iraqi occupiers, but wants to get rid of Saddam Hussein and replace him with a more tractable leader.

Grappled: Moscow’s efforts made the Kremlin a focal point of the peacemaking diplomacy. Gorbachev and Foreign Minister Alexander Bessmertnykh conferred with envoys from all sides of the Gulf issue, including representatives of Iran and Western Europe, on the prospects for a ceasefire. Gorbachev’s special envoy, Yevgeny Primakov, has been shuttling among capitals—from Tehran to Tokyo—after a meeting with Saddam Hussein just days before Baghdad issued its ceasefire proposal. “We will focus on the positive,” said Soviet foreign ministry spokesman Vitaly Churkin, stressing the importance of Iraq’s concession that it “is ready to talk now about the withdrawal of its forces from Kuwait.”

Amid the diplomatic activity, political leaders and sideline analysts grappled with the long-term implications of what might result from a truce—or a final military showdown. “The tough decision will come if the Iraqis really are willing to get out of Kuwait,” said Bruce Jentleson, director of the Washington research centre of the University of California at Davis and a specialist on the Middle East and

U.S. foreign policy. He added: “Is the United States willing to accept that, or not? Does it have the added objective of destroying the military capability of Iraq?”

Concerns over the abrupt rejection of Iraq’s proposal—and the prospect of that country’s destruction in a prolonged war—are shared by leaders in the Middle East and elsewhere. In Jordan, as Maclean ’s Washington Correspondent Hilary Mackenzie reported from Amman, the Iraqi proposal was regarded as an important step, because conceding a willingness to withdraw from Kuwait was a difficult decision—one regarded as a major change by its

authors and by others who understand both the region’s sensitivities and Saddam Hussein. “It is not a light thing,” said Jordan’s information minister, Ibrahim Izzedin. “It is a real shift in their position.” And he added that continued destruction will not only leave deep anti-American scars in the Middle East, but “will destabilize the whole region.”

Such questions and disputes followed a week in which international protests against “overkill” by U.S.-led coalition air forces became a dominant factor. Only two days before Baghdad’s overtures for a negotiated resolution of the Gulf War, a pair of laser-guided bombs fired by a U.S. Stealth fighter-bomber blew up a bunker in Iraq’s capital. That attack, according to Iraqi authorities, killed hundreds of sheltering civilians.

Piercing: The bombing of a building the Iraqis described as an air-raid shelter and American spokesmen insisted was a military command-and-control centre was, according to Western journalists in Baghdad, part of one of the heaviest in the 28 consecutive days of raids on the capital. And it took place as coalition leaders attempted to deflect growing criticism—from Moscow to the Vatican, and in the Middle East—that the unrelenting raids on urban targets inside Iraq exceeded the UN mandate to liberate Kuwait. Less than seven hours before the guided concrete-piercing bombs struck, Bush dismissed the criticism. “We are doing the right thing,” he said. “Wre’re on track, and I think most of the world knows it is a one-sided propaganda machine that is cranking out a lot of myths and falsehoods, but I don’t think the world is buying it.”

But the next day, from Baghdad, television pictures of corpses and injured men, women and children reinforced the claims of the critics that, if only by mishap, the raids were taking innocent lives as well as destroying the nation’s electrical, transportation, communications, water and sewage systems. Some American officials suggested that Iraq had placed the victims in a known military centre in a callous effort to strengthen its propaganda campaign.

Hussein, said White House spokesman

Marlin Fitzwater, “has time and again shown a willingness to sacrifice civilian lives and property to further his war aims. He kills civilians intentionally and with purpose.”

Despite that claim, the television images of the retrieval of bodies and horribly burned survivors, although treated with restraint by TV in Arab coalition countries, provoked displays of outrage elsewhere in the Moslem world. Jordan, Algeria and Tunisia proclaimed national days of mourning. Baghdad renewed its charges that the United States is waging “a systematic campaign to destroy Iraq.” Said Najif al-Hadithi, the information ministry’s director general: “These are deliberate attacks on the city with intention to kill people in Iraq.” Some analysts speculated that the publicity’s damage to the coalition cause would force a

change of tactics—and might hasten the launching of a ground war. Two days earlier, Bush had said that the air campaign “will continue for a while.” After conferring with Defence Secretary Richard Cheney and Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, following their return from an assessment of Operation Desert Storm at command headquarters in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Bush said that “we are going to take whatever time is necessary to sort out when a next stage might begin.”

But by week’s end, the increasingly heavy air, naval and artillery bombardment of Kuwait and the Iraqi border region had, according to U.S. military officers, sharply increased the claimed tally of weapons destroyed—about one-third of the Iraqi army’s force of 4,100 tanks, roughly 800 other armored vehicles and more than one-third of its artillery pieces. In the White House, Fitzwater said that a ground war could come “at any time.”

After the tragedy in Baghdad, Fitzwater insisted that air raids against military centres inside Iraq would continue and that “we are not shrinking one iota from our responsibility to enforce and implement the UN resolutions.” But Cheney, in a speech given on the day of the Baghdad casualties, said that as a result of airwar successes, “We are now, I think, in a situation where we can increasingly shift our attention from those strategic targets inside Iraq and focus increasingly upon the ground forces deployed in southern Iraq and Kuwait.” Journalists in the Iraqi capital reported a lull in the bombardment of Baghdad for one night, although a raid some 24 hours later caused massive damage to the headquarters—“apparently vacant”—of Iraq’s governing Baathist party. And at week’s end, British officials were put on the defensive over Iraqi claims that up to 130 civilians were killed in the town of Falluja, near Baghdad, during a Royal Air Force Tornado attack on a bridge. The Iraqis said that bombs missed the bridge and struck an apartment building and a market. Reporters were shown damage and injured people in a hospital.

Desperation: The television coverage of the bombing victims in Baghdad also reinforced the worldwide diplomatic efforts to end the fighting. And that may have influenced Iraq’s Revolutionary Command Council, led by Hussein, to propose an end to the war—in desperation, as an attempt to divide the anti-Iraq coalition, or as a diversion designed to forestall defeat on the battlefield, according to differing Western analyses.

At first, when Iraq broadcast its ceasefire proposal on Day 30 of the Gulf War, the popular mood in both camps was euphoric. In Baghdad on that sabbath afternoon, people burst into the streets and celebrated with handshakes and by shooting guns into the air. In New York’s Pennsylvania Station, one man among the early Friday morning commuters shouted: “The war’s over. They’ve surrendered.” In Europe, late-morning oil prices tumbled and stock market prices rose within minutes of the Baghdad bulletins.

Then, just as swiftly, cautionary notes damp-

ened the hopefulness. Within less than an hour of the first Baghdad flash, a senior Kuwaiti official in Cairo said: “It is a good statement by Iraq, but it carries many conditions.” And from a Pentagon official in Washington: “Military operations will continue until we are ordered otherwise. I think we need to be very skeptical of this statement on its own.” Prices reversed themselves on the commercial markets.

In the White House soon afterwards, Fitzwater said that U.S. officials awaited the full text of the Baghdad statement, but he added: “It clearly contains conditions for Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait.” That alone stood in direct conflict with the UN resolution cited in Baghdad’s statement—the Security Council demand on the day of the invasion that “Iraq withdraw immediately and unconditionally all its forces to the positions in which they were situated on Aug. 1, 1990.” In Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, Sager al-Beaijan, an exiled official of Kuwait’s information ministry, was blunt. “No deal,” he said. “No conditions.”

Ultimatum: The Baghdad statement set out seven main conditions. They included, with a general ceasefire, the repeal of all 12 of the UN Security Council resolutions, which ranged from ordering worldwide economic sanctions against Iraq last Aug. 6 to the Nov. 29 ultimatum authorizing member states “to use all necessary means” to oust Iraqi forces from Kuwait and “to restore international peace and security in the area.”

And it said that Iraq’s departure from Kuwait should be linked to Israel’s compliance with a 1967 UN resolution demanding its withdrawal from occupied lands in Gaza, Jordan and Syria, as well as territory occupied in Lebanon in 1982. If Israel refused to comply with the UN resolutions, said Baghdad, then the Security Council should take the same enforcement steps that it had imposed against Iraq.

Iraq’s withdrawal from Kuwait should be

matched by the departure of all U.S. and other foreign forces and equipment in the region within one month, the Iraqi statement said. As well, it called upon the member countries of the U.S.-led coalition, and others who financed their war, “to undertake to rebuild what the aggression had destroyed in Iraq.” It demanded the cancellation of all Iraqi debts and those of other states that suffered harm during the Gulf War.

The political future of Kuwait should be decided “on the basis of a genuine democratic exercise.” And in an apparent reference to planning under way in the West, including Canada, for postwar arrangements in the Middle East, “the Revolutionary Command Coun-

cil insisted that the Gulf states, including Iran, should be left the freedom and the task to make security arrangements in the region and organize the relations among themselves without outside interference, and that the Gulf region be declared a zone free from military bases and from any form of foreign military presence.”

Those terms, or almost any one of them, set a yawning gap between the Gulf War’s combatants for any mediator to attempt to bridge. Others affected, including Israel, were as quick as the coalition leaders to dismiss Iraq’s conditions. “The conditions that Saddam Hussein has put forward make the situation every bit as difficult as it was before,” said Avi Pazner, spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. “As long as he is there, the Middle East will not know a day of real peace.” Shamir himself, in an Israeli television interview, agreed that the Hussein government must be removed, and he added: “I think the Americans want the same thing that I want.”

At a meeting in Cairo, eight Arab foreign ministers whose countries are members of the anti-Iraq coalition bluntly dismissed Baghdad’s proposal. “The ministers see the Iraqi proposal is not serious,” said the representatives of Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar and Oman in a joint statement. “It includes unacceptable terms. It is rejected in its entirety and in detail.”

But others regard Iraq’s offer as “an opening to peace,” as Jordan’s Izzedin described it, adding that the United Nations and continental Western European governments should join with Moscow in seeking a resolution. But as the Gulf War entered its second month, its human and material costs rising daily, the prospects of peace without an even bloodier struggle in the deserts of Kuwait seemed only a faint hope.

CARL MOLLINS