COVER

OPERATION DESERT SHIELD

A MILITARY BUILDUP ISOLATES IRAQ

JOHN BIERMAN August 20 1990
COVER

OPERATION DESERT SHIELD

A MILITARY BUILDUP ISOLATES IRAQ

JOHN BIERMAN August 20 1990

OPERATION DESERT SHIELD

A MILITARY BUILDUP ISOLATES IRAQ

For America’s Operation Desert Shield, the support of other nations was crucial. Last week, in swift succession, countries as varied as Canada, Egypt and Australia ordered ships and men to the Persian Gulf, where the advance guard of 50,000 U.S. troops were taking up positions to defend Saudi Arabia. In a tense standoff, the Americans, backed by three aircraft-carrier groups, faced 170,000 men of the one-millionstrong army of Iraq, which invaded Kuwait on Aug. 2. And participation by Washington’s traditional allies, as well as a number of Arab states, was welcome for both strategic and diplomatic reasons. By the weekend, as battle-ready warplanes crisscrossed the desert skies, that united display appeared to have dissuaded Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein from any intentions to extend his invasion into the rich oilfields of Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, U.S. officials expressed concern over reports that Iraqi troops were brutalizing foreigners in Kuwait—and President George Bush said that he had a special responsibility to protect American lives.

A long, costly and exhausting war of diplomatic and economic attrition seemed to be taking shape. In that struggle, the Iraqi dictator’s determination to consolidate his gains in

Kuwait will come up against the resolve of the industrialized world, led by the United States, to maintain a United Nations-mandated economic boycott against Iraq. But if a lengthy standoff does, in fact, develop, the military situation will remain dangerously volatile. Hussein strengthened his invasion force in Kuwait late last week, sending in an estimated 50,000 troops to join the 120,000 already in place. At the same time, an estimated 50,000 U.S. troops and scores of combat aircraft were either in the region or on their way to it. And a five-nation armada of 50 warships, most of them American, but also to include two Canadian destroyers and a supply ship, was moving into position. With so much force concentrated in the region, a spark could set off a fire-storm.

Guard: As a nonstop airlift swelled the U.S. advance guard, 20 Arab leaders met in Cairo in an unsuccessful last-minute attempt to persuade Saddam Hussein to withdraw from Kuwait. A majority condemned the occupation and voted to send a pan-Arab force to protect Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states from attack. Twelve delegations voted in favor of the motion; Iraq, Libya and the Palestine Liberation Organization opposed it, while Algeria and Yemen abstained and Jordan, Mauri-

tania and Sudan expressed reservations.

Indeed, Jordan’s King Hussein said later that his troops would only join an all-Arab army if it replaced U.S. and other non-Arab forces. He warned that if the non-Arabs caused Arab deaths, “they are going to react very angrily throughout the whole Arab world” and “American interests everywhere would be subject to danger.” Meanwhile, thousands of foreigners, among them an unknown number of Canadians, were trapped in Iraq and Kuwait as potential hostages. And Baghdad threatened to use its arsenal of mustard and nerve gases if attacked.

In Ottawa, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney announced that the destroyers Athabaskan and Terra Nova and the supply ship Protecteur would leave soon for the Gulf. He described Saddam Hussein as “a criminal of historic significance” who had “used chemical weapons on his own people,” the country’s Kurdish minority. Later, defence department officials said that the ships, with a total crew of 800, including more than 25 women, will be ready to leave in about two weeks. They will conduct sea-lane control and surveillance duties in the Gulf of Oman, south of the Persian Gulf, and will be in position by mid-September.

In Baghdad, meanwhile, Iraq’s Hussein did

his best to sabotage the Cairo summit. While it was still in session last Friday, he appealed to the people of the Arab world to join him in what he called a “holy war” against U.S. forces in the area. Hussein called on “true believers” to rebel against governments that had “desecrated Arab honor” by co-operating with the West. And he urged the Egyptian people to “stop the foreign fleet from passing through the [Suez] Canal” on its way to the Gulf. That statement was clearly aimed at Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who had condemned Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait and had spearheaded attempts to organize a pan-Arab force to go to the Gulf.

Hussein has long opposed Mubarak for his dependence on U.S. military and economic assistance and his country’s 1979 peace treaty with Israel. And in his statement on Aug. 10, Hussein tried to exploit longstanding Arab grievances against Israel. He referred to the intifadeh, which is what the Palestinians call their uprising against Israel, and applied it to his occupation of Kuwait. Intifadeh’s literal English translation is “shaking off,” and Hussein implied that, by dispossessing Kuwait’s conservative ruling family, he had discarded Western influence. He also claimed to be acting in the interests of Islam, demanding that true believers protect Saudi Arabia’s Moslem holy places from the “Americans and Zionists.”

Hopes: His remarks were part of a developing propaganda offensive, linking U.S. intervention to Israeli expansionism, by which Hussein hopes to win future support in the Arab world. Earlier last week, in fact, he claimed that

Israel was painting its warplanes with U.S. markings in preparation for an attack on Iraq. Dismissing that allegation, Israeli Prime Minister

Yitzhak Shamir warned that, if Hussein were preparing to attack Israel, he would “bring heavy disaster upon himself.”

Still, Israeli leaders were clearly concerned about Hussein’s ability to attack its population centres with long-range missiles armed with chemical warheads. In response to that threat, the Jewish state began strengthening its air defences. The Israelis also staged a successful demonstration of a new air defence system, known as the Arrow and designed, when operational, to intercept incoming missiles. In an interview with Maclean’s, Israel’s deputy foreign minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, when asked if Israel would respond with nuclear weapons to a chemical attack, said that his country will not be the first “to introduce nuclear weapons to the Middle East.” But he added, “Saddam Hussein knows that we have

every means available to defend ourselves.” The possible use of Iraqi chemical weapons obviously concerned the Americans as well. President George Bush said that such a development would be “intolerable.” Added Bush: “It would be dealt with very, very severely.” Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that American troops would be fully protected by special clothing and medical antidotes. But, as military experts pointed out, that clothing, consisting of a double-layered synthetic-fibre suit, a hermetically sealed mask, rubber gloves, boots and a shroud covering the head and shoulders, is stifling even in normal temperatures. In desert conditions, where temperatures routinely reach 49°C(120°F), infantrymen wearing the equipment would be incapable

of sustained combat, most experts said.

Chemical warfare was only one of the potential hazards confronting the troops as they dug in to defensive positions near the Saudi-Kuwaiti frontier, around vital oil installations and on the perimeters of the airfields where U.S. jet fighters and ground-attack planes are based. Despite regular exercises in the heat of California’s Mojave Desert, the U.S. troops would find it difficult to withstand the Saudi heat in prolonged combat. They will Uve in tents and other makeshift accommodations without air conditioning. And some of their advanced military hardware may malfunction as desert sand penetrates and grinds down vital parts and heat-haze distortions impair optical equipment.

Meanwhile, the thousands of Westerners trapped inside Kuwait and Iraq faced hardships

and dangers of a different kind. Their governments refrained from describing them as hostages for fear of aggravating their situation. But it seemed clear that Hussein, by refusing to allow Westerners other than diplomats and their families to leave, was creating a bargaining chip to be used when the time was ripe. An estimated 5,000 of the stranded expatriates are British and 3,500 are Americans, mostly oil industry consultants, fieldworkers and technicians. About 550 Canadian citizens are registered with the embassies in Baghdad and Kuwait City. One of the stranded Canadians, Graham Pierce, a 40-year-old electrician and father of two from Edmonton, was working on a remote oil-drilling site in Kuwait when Iraqi soldiers detained him and other foreigners and sent them under escort to Baghdad. There,

officials turned him over to the Canadian Embassy. But he was not allowed to leave the country and, as he said in a television interview, “it doesn’t look too good right now.” External Affairs spokesman Mark Entwistle said of the stranded Canadians: “It would be premature to call them hostages. Their safety is paramount, so we don’t want to get into a war of semantics with the Iraqis.”

Rape: Many of the foreigners who managed to get out of Kuwait before the Iraqis sealed the frontiers described murder, rape and looting by Iraqi soldiers. Said a South Korean businessman who escaped into Jordan last Thursday: “They are killing civilians and looting shops.” He added that he had heard of Filipino women, who are frequently employed as housemaids by wealthy Kuwaitis, being raped by Iraqi soldiers. But Briton Steven Nunn, who left Kuwait

for the Gulf emirate of Dubai, told a different story at week’s end. He said reports of brutalities were exaggerated, adding that Iraqis are not pillaging and raping. Earlier, a Kuwaiti refugee in Saudi Arabia said that three Iraqi soldiers burst into the house of a relative, demanded food and then sexually violated the maids. He said that the Iraqis were abducting many Kuwaitis, especially prominent citizens. Other refugees from Kuwait reported that

Iraqi troops opened fire on women who were demonstrating against the occupation, killing three of them.

Scene: As the U.S. military buildup continued over the weekend, a Japanese oil executive in Dahran, the Saudi oil capital, described the scene to a Maclean’s correspondent in neighboring Dubai.

(Saudi authorities had not allowed any foreign reporters into the country, although Pentagon officials said on Saturday that the government had agreed to admit a pool of American journalists).

Watching the Dahran airport through binoculars from his office, the executive described F-15 fighter jets and giant C-5 transports landing.

“It’s like a scene from one of those Vietnam movies,” he said, drawing the kind of comparison that makes Gulf Arabs shudder as they contemplate the possible long-term

consequences of U.S. intervention.

Throughout the Gulf states last week, an atmosphere of near panic prevailed as thousands of Western and Asian expatriates scrambled to get out, fearing an American military strike and poison-gas retaliation by Iraq. People besieged airline counters, and there was a dangerous nm

on the banks as expatriates tried to withdraw their balances. Said one Bahrain-based money broker: “I’m not just biting my nails, I’m biting my fingers.” Added a Dubai banker: “There has been a collapse of confidence in the banking system.” Elsewhere in the region, there was unrest of a different kind. Angry demonstrators in Sanaa, the capital of Yemen, tried unsuccessfully to storm the U.S. Embassy. And in Jordan, screaming protesters burned Ameri-

can flags in the streets of the capital, Amman.

Meanwhile, in Kennebunkport, Me., where he was vacationing, Bush said that he would welcome the overthrow of the Iraqi leader but that he was not prepared to actively support it. He added that he would do “whatever it takes” to evict Iraq from Kuwait and, clearly, he real-

ized that Operation Desert Shield could turn into a long standoff. Still, he was bolstered by the vital support he had received from the moderate Arab leaders on Friday, when they approved Saudi Arabia’s request for American intervention as an act of “legitimate self-defence.” That declaration added significantly to world endorsement of U.S. policy. It followed three unprecedented UN Security Council resolutions in the previous week that condemned the Iraqi

invasion, imposed far-reaching and mandatory economic sanctions against Baghdad and declared invalid Hussein’s “eternal and irrevocable” annexation of Kuwait.

But if last week’s developments represented a triumph for U.S. policy, Saddam Hussein has demonstrated that he is a fiercely determined enemy. Some Western intelligence sources say that he has sufficient stocks of emergency food, some of it bought from Canada, to withstand an economic siege of at least six months. With time, Hussein may get other chances to rally the Arab people—over the

heads of their moderate leaders—for a holy war against

what he portrays as a U.S.Zionist conspiracy. In the days ahead, as the Gulf balanees on the knife-edge of

armed conflict, the dictator in Baghdad will hold the key not

only to war or peace in the region, but to the economic well-being of nations far beyond it.

JOHN BIERMAN

HILARY MACKENZIE

KATHLEEN EVANS

ERIC SILVER

MAX RODENBECK

E. KAYE FULTON