AS THE GULF CRISIS DEEPENED, IRAQ ANNOUNCED THAT IT IS HOLDING FOREIGNERS AS HOSTAGES
JOHN BIERMAN,BOB LEVINAugust271990
THE HOSTAGES IN THE GULF
AS THE GULF CRISIS DEEPENED, IRAQ ANNOUNCED THAT IT IS HOLDING FOREIGNERS AS HOSTAGES
It is the word that American officials dared not speak. It has haunted the U.S. presidency from Jimmy Carter to Ronald Reagan, and in the current crisis with Iraq, it threatens to afflict the massing contingent of foreign forces in the Persian Gulf with infuriating impotence—or set off a full-fledged war. The word is hostages. And late last week, the regime of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein seemed to confirm the West’s worst fears. In a statement carried by the official Iraqi News Agency, Sadi Mahdi Salih, Speaker of the Iraqi parliament, declared, “Out of its faith in their sacred mission, the people of Iraq have decided to play host to the citizens of these aggressive nations as long as Iraq remains threatened with an aggressive war.” Salih added that the foreigners would be housed in several key military and industrial installations to help deter attack—and he appeared to present the West with its worst hostage crisis ever.
The foreigners, trapped in Iraq and Kuwait when Hussein’s forces launched their lightning invasion on Aug. 2, include about 4,700 Britons,
3,100 Americans—and 714 Canadians. An Iraqi spokesman said only that Baghdad would exclude its two million “Egyptian brothers” in Iraq and Kuwait from the detention decision—despite the fact that Egyptian troops are among an Arab League force now in Saudi Arabia. And while thousands of foreigners have fled since the crisis began, streaming across the steaming desert into Saudi Arabia and Jordan, relatively few Westerners have been among them. For those left behind, the immediate future looked bleak. In a televised statement on Saturday morning, an Iraqi spokesman said that Westerners, including newborn babies, would be victims of any food shortages suffered by Iraqi children be-
cause of the UN-sanctioned trade blockade.
At the summer White House in Kennebunkport, Me., presidential spokesman Marlin Fitzwater—still avoiding the word hostages—said that President George Bush viewed the Iraqi move as “totally unacceptable.” Using “inno-
cent civilians as pawns,” Fitzwater added, “is contrary to international law and indeed to all accepted norms of international conduct.” Fitzwater said that the United States would consult with other governments whose citizens were being held in Iraq and Kuwait, and an emergency session of the UN Security Council seemed a likely possibility at week’s end.
But what the Americans or anyone else could do about the new hostage crisis was a thorny dilemma. Even before the Iraqi announcement last week, U.S. and British warships began a blockade of Iraqand Kuwait-bound shipping. Washington committed 45,000 marines and a fourth aircraft-carrier group to the Gulf, and activated the Civil Reserve Air Fleet—commercial planes from 29 airlines—to ferry cargo and troops. U.S. officials also suggested that they would call up about 80,000 reservists.
Some U.S. analysts had warned that an American military attack increasingly appeared to be inevitable (page 28). But Pentagon officials conceded late last week that a mission to rescue the hostages would have virtually no chance of success. And an all“ out Western assault on Iraq £ would almost certainly doom the foreigners—as well as z thousands of civilians and milii itary personnel.
5 Throughout the week, the
C-5 Galaxy landing in Saudi Arabia; Bush greets King Hussein (below left): a warning that attacking troops would be met by weapons of 'mass destruction’
military buildup was accompanied by exchanges of overheated rhetoric. Bush and Saddam Hussein called each other liars. Bush claimed that America’s “way of life” was at stake, and Hussein declared that, if war broke out, thousands of Americans would return 'home “shrouded in sad coffins.” Hussein, meanwhile, by suddenly making peace with his longtime enemy, Iran, freed up thousands of Iraqi soldiers to join the 160,000 troops confronting the Americans and their allies across •the Kuwait-Saudi Arabian border. And at week’s end, al Qadisiyah, the newspaper of Iraq’s defence ministry, warned that any attacking troops would be met with weapons of “mass destruction and strategic deterrence”—a clear reference to Iraq’s lethal chemical agents.
The potential for a new hostage crisis had been building throughout the week, as well. On Thursday, the Iraqis ordered all Britons and Americans stranded in Kuwait to gather in specified hotels. British Foreign Office Minister William Waldegrave described the action as “grave and sinister.” And at the British government’s request, the UN Security Council held an urgent, closed-door session on Friday ^nd expressed its “concern and anxiety” over the dangers to the trapped Westerners.
At the same time, the Iraqis cut off consular access to 35 U.S. citizens who had been kept under guard in Baghdad’s deluxe Al-Rashid Hotel. On Friday, Iraqi soldiers turned away a U.S. consular officer who had been making daily visits to the Americans. And at week’s end, some reports suggested—without confirmation—that the group had already been tak-
en to military industrial sites. Other reports said that they had simply been moved to another hotel. Meanwhile, Iraq issued no specific orders to Canadian citizens, about 514 of whom were in Kuwait and 200 in Iraq. According to the external affairs department in Ottawa, 25 Canadians have escaped from Kuwait, 23 to Saudi Arabia and two to Jordan.
There was no diplomatic solution in sight. Jordan’s King Hussein, who flew to see Bush at his vacation home in Kennebunkport last Thursday, left without any apparent accomplishments. The king, generally friendly to the West, has close relations with Iraq and was reportedly carrying a peace proposal from Baghdad. In fact, he arrived empty-handed, and Bush made him wait 36 hours for an audience. The atmosphere as the monarch and the President talked over lunch was, in King Hussein’s words, “frank, open and candid”—the kind of language that usually indicates deep disagreement. And although Bush claimed later that the king had promised to enforce UN-mandated sanctions against Iraq, it seemed possible that Jordan will leave open its Red Sea port of Aqaba for food and other goods destined for Baghdad.
Hussein claimed that the full operation of Aqaba, Jordan’s only seaport, was vital to the country’s economy, even though Bush apparently offered compensation. But the king has political as well as economic problems with the sanctions. Public opinion in Jordan, where about 60 per cent of the population is Palestinian, is overwhelmingly pro-Iraqi, and it would be politically dangerous for Hussein to bar the passage of food to Baghdad. The king, who has undertaken to “respect” the sanctions, ap-
peared to be seeking UN clarification on whether they include food for civilians.
Meanwhile, Saddam Hussein’s peace offer to Iran took most world leaders by surprise. In one stroke, the Iraqi dictator gave away the gains of an eight-year war, which took one million lives on both sides. He unconditionally surrendered the almost 1,000 square miles of Iranian territory that he held, relinquished his claim to exclusive ownership of the strategic Shatt al-Arab waterway and released 20,000 Iranian prisoners of war. The government of Iran’s President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani accepted that development with undisguised delight, and the POWs and Iraqi occupation forces began returning home within two days.
In Baghdad, officials estimated that by turning the two-year-old armistice with Iran into a formal peace, they had released 400,000 troops for service on the southern front against the Americans and their Arab allies. That figure, analysts said, seemed to be inflated. They speculated, however, that in addition to a military dividend,
Hussein might expect economic gains if Iran now breaches the wall of sanctions around Iraq. But Rafsanjani insisted that Iraq “must evacuate Kuwaiti territory.” A source close to Iranian legislators said that it would be “economic suicide” for Iran to defy sanctions. And at Friday prayers in Tehran, a senior religious leader, Ayatollah Abdolkarim Mousavi Ardebili, told worshippers: “Saddam’s best bet is to leave Kuwait unconditionally before the world jumps on him. Then, all of us in the region can together tell America, ‘Sir, please leave.’ ”
Although the UN Security Council vote on Aug. 6 made the economic sanctions compulsory, some Western politicians and international lawyers claimed last week that the United States and Britain had exceeded the mandate. Both countries used their warships to enforce the embargo without specific UN authorization, and UN Secretary General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar called the unauthorized use of force contrary to the UN charter.
Privately, government officials in Canada, which is sending two destroyers and a supply ship to the Gulf, also
expressed misgivings about what -
Bush described as the “interdiction” (instead of “blockade,” which in legal terms is an act of war) of Iraq-bound shipping. But External Affairs spokesman Mark Entwistle stressed that Canada was not formally breaking with Washington over the issue. And in diplomatic language, he added: “There is a process in the United Nations which deals with sanctions, their implementation and measures to take if those are not working. This is the route that should be followed.”
But Bush was clearly determined to continue stopping suspect ships in the Gulf and the Red
Sea to determine their cargo and destination. The Pentagon issued orders to its warships in the region to use minimum force, including shots across bows, to prevent ships carrying freight or oil to or from Iraq. And last Friday, the Pentagon reported that U.S. ships had challenged two freighters heading towards Iraq but had allowed them to proceed after establishing that their cargo holds were empty. Retired U.S. admiral Eugene Carroll, deputy director of the Washington-based Center for Defense Information, said that by his interdiction policy, Bush was jeopardizing his international support. “Now we’re starting to pull
away from the consensus,” added Carroll. “Now we’re becoming the 800-lb. gorilla.” Meanwhile, the United States and its Arab allies, as well as the opposing Iraqis, moved heavily armed forces closer to the tense confrontation line along the Kuwait-Saudi frontier. U.S. air force officers said that, in the skies, American jets had several times “locked on” their radar-guided weapons systems to approaching Iraqi warplanes in case it became necessary to open fire. But each time, the Iraqis veered off. Said one American crew chief: “If I were in a [Iraqi] Mirage and an F-15
locked on to me, I’d get out of there fast too.” The danger of the Iraqis resorting to chemical weapons if war breaks out remained a pressing concern. At a 40-nation disarmament conference in Geneva, chief U.S. delegate Stephen Ledogar said that the United States reserved the right “to respond in kind” if Ira« used mustard or nerve gas. And in Washington, Pentagon officials ordered contractors to ruá^ completion of orders for charcoal-lined anti-gas outfits and syringe kits carrying a nerve-gas antidote. Although not directly involved in the crisis, the Israelis, too, displayed growing fears about the possibility of chemical warfare. Chie£ Rabbi Mordechai Eliahu ruled that Orthodox Jewish men, who are normally required to wear beards; should carry scissors to cut them off if it became neces3 sary to put on gas masks. „ Meanwhile, many Gulf Arabs maintain that the Americans’ real aim is to redraw the map of the Gulf. “If they smash Saddam, they will not want to leave Iran as the dominant regional power,” said one normally conserva3 tive Dubai resident, predicting the creation of an alliance of pro-Western Gulf nations under U.S. domination. And a local newspaper editor said that the Americans had already taken charge of Saudi security, foreign affairs and oil policy. “All areas of gov-1 emment are being controlled by the United States,” fië said. “It’s all finished now.” The Saudis, said Admiral Carroll, may well fear that “having let the nose of the camel under the flap of the tent, now the whole big beast is crawling in with them.” * For the moment, Bush and his allies still seemed to have the majority^of Western and Arab countries alike on their side. But there was plainly % I danger that the unprecedent5 ed consensus could begin t* “ unravel if the President went too far beyond UN-sanctioned action. There were also serious concerns about how long the American people would tolerate the new and chilling hostage crisis—before they make Bush pay politically as they once did Jimmy Carter. But the prospect of war breaking out overshadowed all other events in the increasingly dangerous Gulf.
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