The orders came through just before midnight, as HMCS Toronto was plowing through rough seas in the Atlantic just outside the Strait of Gibraltar. In Ottawa, 5,400 km and five time zones to the west, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien was on his feet in the House of Commons. Canada, he made clear, was ready to send forces to the Persian Gulf once again to stand with the United States as it threatens to launch another attack on Iraq. Aboard the Toronto, a three-year-old frigate that is one of Canada’s most modern warships, Cmdr. Brett Johnson prepared to break away from routine NATO exercises and set course through the Mediterranean and into the Gulf with his crew of 238. Being ordered to join the U.S. armada staring down Saddam Hussein, he acknowledged later, “was a bit of a shock—but we’re worked up and we’re focused.”
Ready, aye, ready—but for what? Ottawa’s decision last week to dispatch the Toronto to the Gulf, along with two KCC-130 Hercules refuelling aircraft from Winnipeg, provided Washington with modest military assistance but valuable political support in its determined campaign to prevent Saddam from developing so-called weapons of mass destruction. With the time for a diplomatic solution fast running out, the Americans were leaning on their friends to show some muscle. President Bill Clinton spent 15 minutes on the phone with Chrétien on Sunday, Feb. 8, to nail down Canada’s commitment. Officially, the Liberal government did not give the troops the go-ahead until Tuesday morning, during a cabinet meeting in which Chrétien left no doubt where he stood. Saddam, he joked, had a history of taking recalcitrant ministers outside his cabinet room and executing them on the spot. Australia also pledged military help, while Germany, Spain, Italy, Portugal and Belgium offered the use of bases for U.S. aircraft. But even as other countries lined up to express at least token support, the doubts about a new attack on Iraq were mounting fast.
What, asked a growing chorus of critics, will another bombing campaign accomplish? In Washington, U.S. officials lowered expectations all week, saying that air strikes cannot be expected to eliminate Saddam’s capacity to produce chemical and biological weapons—but only, in Clinton’s own words, to “substantially reduce or delay” it. The best solution, they insisted, is still a diplomatic agreement that would give United Nations weapons inspectors unrestricted access to all sites in Iraq, including the eight so-called presidential sites that Saddam’s government has declared off-limits. And Chrétien said that threatening force was the only way to bring about a negotiated solution to the crisis. “If we don’t indicate that we are serious,” he told reporters in Ottawa, “nothing will happen.”
But even in Washington, Clinton was finding it hard to get the kind of bipartisan support that U.S. presidents can normally count on when young Americans are sent in harm’s way. Congress had been expected to pass a resolution last week expressing support for an attack on Iraq, if necessary. But it adjourned until next Monday, Feb. 23, without taking action, reflecting divisions and doubts in both parties—as well as confusion over the administration’s apparently shifting goals in the region. “The Congress,” said Republican Senator Arlen Specter, “is speaking loudly by not speaking at all.” Republicans, in particular, worried openly that even intense air strikes would leave Saddam in place, yet could eliminate any chance of getting Iraq to comply with UN inspections. “What is the endgame?” asked Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott. “If we do go to a military activity, what’s our position when that’s over, if Saddam Hussein is still there?”
In Canada, too, pointed questions came not only from predictable quarters—such as New Democrats who worried that innocent civilians would be killed in an attack (as, indeed, they almost certainly would). Lewis Mackenzie, the retired major-general and veteran of UN peacekeeping in Bosnia, argued that air strikes have no chance of solving the region’s problems. “During the Gulf War, the allies bombed Iraq for five weeks and didn’t get rid of the dangerous weapons,” he said. “How can they do it now?” The American mission, added Mackenzie, is poorly defined—and Canada should be asking Washington to spell out its longterm objectives before jumping in.
“You should always ask yourself what’s next,” he said. “They’d better get an answer.”
In fact, the 300 to 400 Canadian troops involved in what Ottawa last week officially named Operation Determination are unlikely to be in much danger no matter what happens. In a move that Mackenzie caustically called “typically Canadian,” they will be deployed far from harm’s way. The Toronto, a 4,300-tonne Halifax-class frigate, will likely help out as an escort for the U.S. battle group massed in the Gulf. The Americans have three aircraft carriers, a dozen other major warships and about 300 combat aircraft; last week the Pentagon dispatched 3,000 more troops to the region, bringing the U.S. total to 30,000. Britain, the United States’ most enthusiastic cheerleader, has sent a carrier and three other ships. The Toronto, commissioned in 1994, is equipped with antiship, anti-aircraft and antimissile weapons, as well as a 35-year-old Sea King helicopter used for antisubmarine operations. Unlike much of Canada’s aging fleet, the Toronto is state of the art. Johnson, its 42-year-old captain, took command only in mid-January, and said with understandable pride that “we sail in the best frigate in the world.”
He and his crew are unlikely to come under direct threat: Iraq’s offensive power has been so damaged by the 1991 Gulf War and seven years of a UN embargo that it has almost no capacity to attack enemy ships. Nonetheless, the Canadians were to be inoculated against anthrax, one of the biological agents that Iraq is believed to possess, and to undergo training for a possible chemical attack.
The two Canadian Hercules air-to-air refuelling planes are less glamorous, but may prove to be more useful. Since only Kuwait and Bahrain, of all the Gulf states, have agreed to let American warplanes operate from their soil, most sorties will be flown from aircraft carriers. The U.S. naval aircraft that will provide most of the striking power against Iraq are smaller than air force planes and have relatively short ranges, and so will need to be refuelled in flight before attacking their targets. Each Hercules can refuel as many as 40 a day—a significant contribution during an intense air campaign. If it does come to that, there is little doubt that the attack will be intense—aimed at known storehouses of chemical and biological weapons, key military installations, and the Republican Guard troops upon whom Saddam relies so heavily. One significant change since the 1991 Gulf War that ended with Iraq’s expulsion from Kuwait is that almost all the 230 allied fighters and bombers in the region are now equipped with so-called smart bombs that are guided to their targets by lasers or satellites. As a result, their punch will be more accurate—and more deadly. ‘We are not interested,” U.S. undersecretary of state Thomas Pickering stressed last week, “in pinprick strikes or demonstration strikes or symbolic strikes.”
The problem for American planners is that periodic U.S. attacks since 1991 have been essentially pinpricks—most recently a few cruise missiles launched in 1996 when Saddam moved against Kurdish rebels in the north. With that experience behind him, says analyst Richard Haass, Saddam may well have misjudged Washington’s resolve last fall when he barred the UN weapons inspectors from the presidential compounds and set off the current crisis. “He calculated that he would face only a small military strike,” says Haass, who was a top state department official during the Gulf War.
In fact, a growing number of analysts say that Saddam may actually welcome a U.S. attack. By that calculation, he would hunker down, absorb the damage to his military forces, and count on world opinion swinging his way. In the best scenario for Iraq, scenes of widespread damage and civilian casualties (so-called collateral damage) might inflame Arab opinion, turn Russia decisively against Washington, end the UN weapons inspection program once and for all, and perhaps persuade the UN to ease or drop its economic sanctions against Iraq. “He’s a risk-taker,” says Judy Yaphe, an Iraq specialist at the National Defense University in Washington. “His calculation is that we won’t be able to do the kind of damage we’d like to do, that we’ll have played the force card and then have to step back and watch him say, ‘I’m alive, I won.’ ”
With U.S. and allied forces pouring into the Gulf, pressure for an attack is clearly growing. Speculation about timing now focuses on a three-week period beginning around Feb. 26 or 27. By then, Congress will have resumed sitting in Washington and will likely have passed a resolution expressing support for Clinton. Washington will be able to argue that it allowed plenty of time for diplomatic efforts to succeed. U.S. forces will be in place and the Winter Olympics in Nagano, which the Japanese government asked be respected as a period of peace, will be over. The window for an attack will close around the end of March, when Muslims begin gathering for the hajj, their annual pilgrimage to the holy sites of Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia. Attacking Iraq then, goes the thinking, would add insult to injury for Muslims.
Yet despite the rising rhetoric and massing of forces, there are reasons to believe that an attack might still be averted. The balance of forces is very different from early 1991, when the Gulf War was about to begin. Then, both sides were confident they could win. The U.S.-led coalition had massed overwhelming force on Kuwait’s borders and felt sure it could sweep Iraq’s troops away. Saddam, meanwhile, clearly believed his own pronouncements—that U.S. ground forces would suffer unacceptably high losses and American public opinion would force Washington to give up the fight. This time, notes analyst Haass, now director of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington, both sides are uneasy. Iraq appears to have underestimated the scale of the blow that the United States is prepared to deliver, while the Clinton administration is nervous about the effectiveness of an air strike and the world reaction that would follow. As a result, says Haass, “both sides are interested in seeing diplomacy work.”
Those efforts continued in earnest last week. As U.S. Defence Secretary William Cohen travelled through Europe, the Mideast and Russia in an attempt to win support for a possible attack, others tried unsuccessfully to find a peaceful solution. In Cairo, Iraqi Foreign Minister Mohammed Saeed Al-Sahhaf offered to allow inspectors appointed by the secretary general of the United Nations to visit eight major presidential sites in Iraq for up to two months. But the UN says Iraq has prevented its inspectors from entering many more sensitive locations—as many as 63, including dozens of palaces and residences built for Saddam and his closest cronies. And Washington is adamant that Iraq must comply with the agreement that it signed after the Gulf War, allowing UN inspectors to enter all Iraqi facilities for unlimited periods. Moreover, it says, Iraq must permit the same inspectors who have been working since 1991 to continue their searches for chemical and biological weapons, and cannot demand that new teams be selected. ‘We feel very strongly there should be clear, unfettered access to all sites,” said the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Bill Richardson.
Still, Washington is clearly hoping that Saddam will finally back down in the face of the formidable forces massed against him—what American planners last week dubbed Operation Desert Thunder. Most analysts have already concluded that the political cost of an attack to the United States would be so high, and its military effectiveness so low, that the real goal of Clinton’s policy is to intimidate Iraq into complying with UN resolutions and allowing the inspectors back in. By that calculation, he will already have failed if the warplanes and missiles are unleashed.
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