World

Poised at the brink

Fears of global repercussions spur Annan's Iraq peace bid

BARRY CAME March 2 1998
World

Poised at the brink

Fears of global repercussions spur Annan's Iraq peace bid

BARRY CAME March 2 1998

Poised at the brink

Fears of global repercussions spur Annan's Iraq peace bid

BARRY CAME

ANDREW PHILLIPS

LUKE FISHER

World

Saddam Hussein, unlike the strutting dictator of seven years ago, has rarely ventured into public view during the latest crisis in the Persian Gulf. When he has, however, an ominous new element has crept into his carefully scripted appearances. Invariably, he is surrounded by a chanting mob of uniformed, rifle-toting young men. To the untutored eye, there is nothing special about this gaggle of unruly troopers. But to those who closely monitor his activities, they represent a potent psychological weapon in the Iraqi strongman’s depleted but still deadly arsenal. For they are a new style of personal bodyguard—heavily armed, lightly trained, highly undisciplined. “It is Saddam’s way of sending all of us a warning,” said former Iraqi diplomat Ghassan Attayeh. “He is telling us: ‘Get rid of me and you will let loose upon the land uncontrollable forces, capable of sweeping everything away in a bloodbath of unimaginable dimensions.’ ”

It was a message well worth pondering by those in command of the U.S.-led air and naval armada assembled in the Persian Gulf, poised to strike out at Iraq if Kofi Annan failed in his eleventh-hour attempt to avert a war. The UN secretary general was trying at the weekend to achieve what his predecessor, Javier Pérez de Cuellar, could not on the eve of the Gulf War in 1991. Annan carried with him a proposal that senior diplomats accompany UN arms inspectors on visits to sites that Saddam has declared off-limits, provoking the crisis.

The Security Council sweetened the pot

by doubling to $7.4 billion the amount of oil Iraq is allowed to sell every six months in exchange for food and medicine.

Fuelling the urgency of Annan’s efforts was rising global concern over the crisis. What once seemed a simple U.S. threat to punish Saddam had mushroomed into a showdown whose consequences could be perilous—not only for Iraq but for the region as a whole, for U.S. interests in the Middle East, perhaps even for U.S. relations with its Western allies. “We are all going to face a hell of a problem,” commented a worried Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak last week, pointedly adding, “And I am not talking about governments in just this part of the world.”

To be sure, it is Iraq’s long-suffering population who would bear the brunt of any attack. Even if Annan managed to find a way around the impasse—on Saturday he said he was “rather optimistic” that he would secure an agreement to open all suspected weapons sites—Iraq’s 22 million people were not likely to see much immediate relief. “If there is a deal it will be short term,” maintained Tim Trevan, an analyst with London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies and previously an adviser to UNSCOM, the arms inspection agency. “Almost as soon as it is signed, you can bet that Saddam will busily start to undermine it.”

The geopolitical stakes were highest in and around Iraq. Should U.S.-led raids against Iraq succeed in the unstated but apparent objective of damaging Saddam’s security apparatus enough to spark an insurrection, Iraq’s people could face prolonged civil turmoil at least as ugly as occurred after the 1991 Gulf War, when Saddam’s Republican Guard, with murderous efficiency, suppressed rebellion in 15 of the country’s 18 governates. “Much blood will flow,” warns Laith Kubba, a London-based leader of the moderate Islamist opposition to Saddam’s rule.

In the most dramatic scenario, Iraq could well be dismembered by one or more of its neighbors, particularly if Saddam were toppled or killed and no strong successor emerged. Turkey, wary of the dissident Kurdish population that straddles both sides of the country’s border with Iraq, has already massed 70,000 troops on the Iraqi frontier. What the Ankara government fears is the creation of an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq that would incite Turkey’s ever-restive Kurds to do the same. It is the principal reason why Turkish President Suleyman Demirel sent his foreign minister to Baghdad last week “to give Saddam Hussein a clear message—the thunderstorm is coming if you do not comply with the decisions of the United Nations.”

On Iraq’s eastern borders, Iran, too, was mobilizing troops. Precisely why remains unclear. Iran’s ruling clerics, like all other leaders in the region, have denounced plans for a military assault against Iraq. Early in February, Saddam’s son Qusay, in charge of Iraq’s allpervasive security apparatus, met with his Iranian counterpart, apparently in an effort to heal some of the wounds inflicted by the eight-year war the two countries fought during the 1980s.

At the same time, however, at least some factions in the Iranian government—including newly elected moderate President Mohammed Khatami—are in the midst of a mild flirtation with the United States. Only last week, an early sign of a thaw occurred when a U.S. wrestling team arrived in the Iranian capital to compete in a tournament. For the first time since the overthrow of the Shah in 1979, the U.S. flag was cheered in Tehran rather than burned and trampled. Some analysts speculate that Iran is preparing to exploit the current crisis to recommence hostilities with Iraq.

Whatever the accuracy of that judgment, it is true that the long-standing American policy of “dual containment,” geared to isolating Iran and Iraq, is currently in shreds. In fact, U.S. policy in the region has resulted in a paradox: it is Washington that now stands in danger of being isolated. With the exception of Kuwait, not a single Arab country is supporting the U.S.-led effort to attack Iraq. Even Bahrain, home base for the U.S. Fifth Fleet in the Gulf, last week withdrew permission for the use of its territory to launch air or naval strikes against Iraq, a decision that also complicated Canada’s military role in the standoff.

Until the Bahraini change of mind, it was widely assumed that Canadian forces in the Gulf would be based in the island state. Two Hercules KCC-130s were expected to operate out of Bahrain’s sprawling Sheikh Isa airbase. The frigate HMCS Toronto, in the Red Sea late last week, was also heading for the port of Manama, Bahrain’s capital. By week’s end, however, Canadian Forces headquarters in Ottawa still did not have a clear idea where the Toronto or the Hercules, much less supporting troops, would be based.

There was no great mystery behind Arab concerns. Bahrain’s leaders, like those of most Arab states, feared that if bombs began to fall on Iraq, the ground beneath their own feet would tremble, unleashing waves of popular anger and extremism. Washington’s allies in the region are particularly vulnerable. There have already been riots in Jordan. In Israel, Islamic extremists are promising more suicide attacks. “The man in the street in most Arab countries sees no justice, no evenhandedness, in American policy,” says London-based Iraqi exile Sabbah Mukhtar. “The Americans did not bomb the Serbs when they defied UN resolutions. They do not bomb Israel when it refuses to implement UN directives.”

That same sentiment underlies a European reluctance, outside Britain, to embrace the U.S. initiatives wholeheartedly. That, in turn, places scant pressure on Saddam Hussein, who cannot have missed the message that came from the American heartland last week. In the sports arena at Ohio State University in Columbus, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Secretary of Defence William Cohen and National Security Adviser Sandy Berger faced a series of tough questions in an “international town-hall meeting” broadcast globally on CNN. Embarrassingly, a small knot of protesters disrupted the session with chants of “One, two, three, four—we don’t want your racist war.”

The negative reaction in Ohio further rattled members of the U.S. Congress, who have already been wavering on backing a military strike. To many, the fundamental problem was the lack of clear objectives. “We don’t know what to call this,” complained retired colonel William Taylor, director of military studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “Is it a war? Is it a police action? We have no strategic objectives. We have no policy. There is no definition of victory. We would not know what victory looked like if we got there.” For the United States and its allies in the Gulf, that was hardly a clarion call to arms.