Canada’s critical ceasefire mission

BOB LEVIN August 22 1988

Canada’s critical ceasefire mission

BOB LEVIN August 22 1988

Canada’s critical ceasefire mission



In a windowless steel-sided hangar at Canadian Forces Base Petawawa, Ont., 170 km west of Ottawa, scores of fatigue-clad soldiers lined up last week to complete preparations for a major overseas mission. Moving from desk to desk, they updated their wills and pay records, received vaccinations and dental checkups, and chatted with the chaplains. All were members of the 370-man unit that will provide radio communications for the United Nations observers assigned to oversee the ceasefire in the Iran-Iraq war. But in the predeparture queue, the signallers talked less about the merits of their mission than about the extra pay they would receive: $150 a month for a first-time peacekeeper, $203 for those with experience in other world trouble spots. Most of the money will be deposited directly into their bank accounts at home. “We only need enough for beer and whisky dollies [prostitutes],” said one soldier. Responded another: “Not too many whisky dollies over there. Touch one of their women and you lose a hand.”

But for all the banter, there was no denying the potential dangers ahead. Said Sgt. John Vint, 40, an engineer

from London, Ont.: “After eight years of war, there’s bound to be some guys out there with itchy trigger fingers.” Still, Vint seemed eager to take part in his first peacekeeping assignment. “I’ve been in the service 21 years,” he said. “This might be my last chance to go on one of these trips.”

The Canadians’ role could hardly be more vital: to help give peace a chance in the Persian Gulf war zone. At a 15member Security Council meeting on Aug. 8, UN Secretary General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar announced that Iran and Iraq—whose bloody eight-year war has killed an estimated one million peoplehad agreed to begin the ceasefire on Aug. 20 and start talks on a permanent peace settlement in Geneva five days later. The announcement represented another major triumph for the United Nations, which just last April engineered an agreement for the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan.

The ceasefire won sustained applause from leaders around the world and touched off wild celebrations in the streets of Baghdad, the Iraqi capital, where it was represented as a victory for the regime of strongman Saddam Hussein. Indeed, so many celebrants were shooting guns in the air over

Baghdad that Canada’s ambassador to Iraq, Eric Wang, said that “spent bullets were falling like rain.” By contrast, the Iranians were markedly subdued. As one Tehran businessman put it, “How can we celebrate when we have lost more than half a million dead?”

A lasting peace was by no means at hand just yet. But while the two sides negotiate in Geneva, the ceasefire will be watched over by a 24-nation contingent with the awkward acronym UNIIMOG: the United Nations Iran-Iraq Military Observer Group. The 350 unarmed frontline observers—including 15 Canadians, all on the Iraqi side—will be stationed at camps along the 1,200-km border between the two countries, patrolling across a treacherous terrain of mountains, desert and marshes.

Late last week, advance teams of Canadian soldiers flew from CFB Trenton to Iran and Iraq. The bulk of the total 498-man force—composed of the 15 frontline observers, the 370-man communications unit and support personnel—is scheduled to follow beginning on Aug. 17. They will be commanded by Yugoslav Maj.-Gen. Slavko Jovic, 58, with Canadian Col. John Annand serving as chief of staff. Overall, one senior official at the UN secretariat told Maclean ’s that the peacekeeping mission is “very much a Canadian effort.”

What makes that particularly true is the role of the communications unit, which is bigger than the observer force itself. At an Ottawa news conference, Defence Minister Perrin Beatty said that the Canadian unit—officially called

the 88 Communications Squadron —had signed on for a tentative six-month assignment, at a cost of $3 million. It consists of 250 men from Petawawa and another 120 from other Canadian bases and from the reserves. The squadron is backed by nearly another 115 troops flying to the region in a support capacity. Essentially, said Gen. John Maclnnis, who is help-

ing to plan the operation, it will be a force of “small trucks with giant antennas”—150 trucks in all, plus radio, teletype and telephone gear. At Petawawa last week, soldiers worked overtime to put the equipment into top shape. “For once, there’s no hassle for parts,” said technician Kenneth Chan, 31, of Montreal.

“It’s like going into Canadian Tire—ask for it and it’s yours.”

On the ground, the UN observers, motoring to the front in jeeps, will relay messages over portable radios to their colleagues across the border or to Canadian units based some 5 to 10 km behind the lines. Canadian radiomen will send the messages on to UN posts in Baghdad and Tehran, which in turn will transmit them back to the UN headquarters in New York City. After the border and command posts become fixed, Canadian troops are expected to lay telephone wire, which is far more reliable than radio communication. For protection, the Canadians will carry only small arms and—in view of documented Iraqi poison-gas attacks in the past—protective suits and gas masks. “It is highly unlikely that this would be needed,” said Maclnnis, “but we feel that it is a prudent measure.”

At the same time, there were no guarantees that the ceasefire would hold. Two days after Pérez de Cuéllar’s announcement, Iran reported that Iraqi jets had violated its air space. And a day later, the Iraqis alleged that the Iranians had fired hundreds of missiles and howitzer and mortar shells at various targets on the southern front.

Still, Iranian leaders in particular had good reason to want the war to end. After years of a seesawing stalemate in the fierce ground fighting and brutal bombardments known as the “war of the cities,” Iraqi forces suddenly broke through last spring with a series of decisive victories. In addition, the Iranian war effort was plagued by a shattered economy, a demoralized population and the ill health of 88year-old Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the spiritual leader who is the zealous heart of the Iranian revolution. Last month, Khomeini called acceptance of the UN ceasefire resolution “more deadly to me than poison”—but accepted it nonetheless.

Meanwhile, officials expressed hope that the ceasefire would lead to the release of 18 Western hostages—including 10 Americans and three Britons—currently held in Lebanon by pro-Iranian radicals. Last week in London, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, conferred with a senior Iranian foreign ministry official on the fate of Terry Waite, the Church of England special envoy who was himself seized in Lebanon in January,

1987, while trying to arrange the release of hostages there. In addition, British diplomat David Reddaway flew to Tehran to discuss the hostages and, according to some officials, to pave the way for the resumption of full British diplomatic ties with Tehran.

For the UN, the ceasefire arrangement helped to burnish the world organization’s image. Written off by some critics as an increasingly irrelevant and impotent collection of petty squabblers, the UN has rebounded by helping to engineer ceasefires not only in Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf but in southern Africa as well. Last week, South Africa, Angola and Cuba agreed to an immediate truce in embattled Angola and neighboring Namibia. At the same time, Pretoria accepted UN Resolution 435 calling for Namibian elections and independence. The UN chief has also managed to persuade Greek and Turkish leaders in Cyprus—where Canadian peacekeeping forces have been serving since 1964—to meet in Geneva on Aug. 25 to discuss their long-running dispute. And late last week, the UN presented the Moroccan government with a plan to end its war with Polisario Front guerrillas over control of the former Spanish colony of Western Sahara.

Yet at its time of triumph, the UN found itself in desperate financial straits. Pérez de Cuéllar says that the organization will simply run out of funds in November—unless Washington begins to pay its overdue fees. The United States, which not only is host to the UN headquarters but is committed to providing one-quarter of its operating budget, owes $560 million in unpaid regular dues, plus $78 million for peacekeeping efforts. The Reagan administration, however—facing an enormous budget deficit—insists that it will not pay the $53 million owed for last year alone unless the UN agrees to cap its own spending. And last week, Richard Williamson, an assistant U.S. secretary of state, argued that Arab countries, which have the most to gain from peace in the Persian Gulf, should pay a larger percentage of the $89-million bill for the ceasefire operation.

But even more money may not be able to buy permanent peace in the region. At the Geneva talks, Iranian and Iraqi negotiators will have to overcome deep-seated mutual enmity. Still talking tough last week, Iranian officials insisted that Iraq—which began the war in September, 1980, by invading Iran in an attempt to seize the strategic Shatt al-Arab waterway—must be condemned as the aggressor. The two sides will also face the nightmarish task of defining the boundary between them. But even with such formidable obstacles ahead, the Canadian and other peacekeepers began their assignment this week with the knowledge that, after eight years of grisly warfare, a ceasefire was at least a start.

-BOB LEVIN with MARC CLARK at CFB Petawawa and correspondents’ reports