The long, hard road to peace

JOHN BIERMAN September 5 1988

The long, hard road to peace

JOHN BIERMAN September 5 1988

The long, hard road to peace



The encounter last week in the marble-walled council chamber of United Nations headquarters in Geneva was businesslike—and distinctly chilly. At one desk sat UN Secretary General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar. Flanking him, but several metres apart, were the delegations of Iraq and Iran. There were no handshakes, and both delegations tried to avoid making eye contact with the other. The two nations had

been at war for almost eight years—at a cost of about $740 billion and almost one million lives—and the mutual distrust and bitterness was palpable. Still, Pérez de Cuéllar seemed determined to make the most of the fact that the two sides had finally met.

As Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz lit a cigar and officials removed the reporters and photographers who had been allowed in to observe the ceremonial opening of the talks, Pérez de Cuéllar told the opposing sides, “Your presence here clearly indicates that your governments are quite prepared to seek the path of peace.” But it was equally clear that the path would be long and difficult. The day before, Pérez de Cuéllar had said in an interview that the peace process “could last years.” And in the Iraqi capital, Bagh-

dad, a senior Western diplomat who wished to be unnamed said, “There are only a few positive factors amid a sea of negative factors.” Those negative factors include the demarcation of the frontier along the Shatt-al-Arab waterway that divides the two countries, the number of prisoners of war each side holds and arrangements for their return, and the assignment of blame for starting the war.

As the two sides argued, UN ceasefire observers from 24 nations, including 15 Canadians, were completing their first week of patrols along the 1,200-km border between Iran and Iraq. The ceasefire held, but the observers encountered brutally harsh terrain and searing heat. There were problems of a different kind for the 495 Canadians who are to provide support and communications for the frontline observers. In Baghdad, as in Tehran, they encountered unexpected technical glitches and frustrating bureaucratic delays.

As the last of the Canadian signallers and support troops flew into the two capitals, their commanders were revising plans that had been hastily drawn up in Ottawa after Pérez de Cuéllar’s Aug. 8 announcement of a ceasefire agreement. In Baghdad, some

of the Canadians complained vociferously about the technical and administrative obstacles that were keeping some of them from the border area, where they were due to set up radio links. “I’ll be glad to get out of here, heat or no heat,” said Pte. William Glaspey as he hunched over a table in the air-conditioned Baghdad headquarters of the United Nations IranIraq Military Observer Group (UNII-

MOG). He added, “I’m tired of sitting around this place.” And it was not until week’s end that the first four-man signals detachment climbed into a white, one-ton radio truck and headed for the front.

Intense heat, which can soar to 50°C (120°F) at midday, represented the worst problem for the frontline observers. Indeed, a Danish observer, afflicted by heatstroke while on patrol in the Kurdistan mountains of the northern sector, died in a Baghdad hospital last Thursday. But there were no reports of armed action by the opposing armies along the truce line. Said Canadian Col. John Annand, a UNIIMOG commander: “To the best of my knowledge, there has not been a single shot fired since the ceasefire.”

For the officers and men of Canada’s

88 Signals Regiment, whose mission is to set up and run a sophisticated radio network for the ceasefire observers, a major obstacle was posed by the mountain ranges of Kurdistan. Second Lieut. William Gorham, who made a reconnaissance visit to the area earlier this week, returned with a report that the Canadians’ state-of-the-art Very High Frequency equipment would not work there. Said Lt.-Col.

Allan Batchelar, commanding the signals force: “We were told by the UN and the Iraqis that we could cover the north with our VHF equipment. But once we got up there, we realized that it couldn’t do the job.” The VHF equipment needs an unobstructed line of sight to function properly, he explained, and the mountains prevented that.

Still, the Canadians also have lower-frequency equipment on hand even though, as Batchelar cautioned, it is “quirky” and might not always function well in mountainous terrain.

As well, Gorham reported that the UNIIMOG headquarters in the northern

region had been sited in the wrong place—the city of Kirkuk, 140 km from the border with Iran. At Batchelar’s urging, the Iraqis agreed to its being moved to Sulaymaniyah, about 50 km from the frontier, and located in a hotel on high ground at the city’s outskirts, where radio reception will be easier.

In the meantime, support group officers were laying the groundwork for a sustained Canadian military presence in Iraq. Finance officers secured a half-million-dollar line of credit with a local bank and began to pay the troops in Iraqi dinars. That proved to be unusually difficult: the ceasefire, which officially came into effect on Aug. 20, was the occasion for a four-day s holiday. When the £ banks reopened, a Canadian officer who went to arrange the loan was delayed for another two hours while, at the bank staff’s insistence, he joined them in a tea-and-cakes peace party. Meanwhile, supply officers began making arrangements to provide the troops with items ranging from fresh vegetables to duty-free beer, flown in from

the Canadian base in Lahr, West Germany. With a bottle of local beer selling for two dinars—$8 at the official exchange rate—officers said that the imports were essential for morale.

As the fragile ceasefire survived its first week and the Canadian signals units began moving to the front, the equally fragile peace talks in Geneva survived their second day and were due to continue after a Saturday break. But the atmosphere remained frigid, and the Iranian delegation under Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati clearly took a hard line. Emerging from the conference room, Velayati told reporters that Iran was insisting on the early setting up of an independent tribunal to assign responsibility for starting the war—a verdict the Iranians clearly believe would blame the Iraqis. Velayati also insisted that peace would depend on the Iraqis recognizing a 1975 treatyrepudiated by Baghdad—that draws the southern boundary between the two countries along the middle of the Shatt-al-Arab. Given the wide gap between the two sides’ positions, Pérez de Cuéllar’s prediction that the peace process might drag on for years began to look depressingly accurate.