JOHN BIERMAN January 21 1991



JOHN BIERMAN January 21 1991




The countdown to war was almost complete. With less than three days to go before the United Nations-mandated deadline of Jan. 15, UN Secretary General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar met Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein in Baghdad in an urgent final attempt to avert catastrophe by persuading him to withdraw from Kuwait. At sea in the Persian Gulf, and deployed throughout the northern Saudi Arabian desert, more than 600,000 U.S. and allied troops awaited the order to launch an offensive. In Washington, the two houses of Congress authorized Bush, by narrow margins, to send American troops into action. And in the streets of the Iraqi capital, there was a palpable mood of gloom, mixed with disbelief that the longthreatened battle was actually at hand.

In Israel, which the Iraqis have cited as their first target if war begins, fear was profound (page 27). Elsewhere, mounting concern led to a flurry of rumors and peace plans. Published reports, quoting Arab diplomats, described an Iraqi plan to pull back a day or two after Jan. 15, but the Baghdad government denied it. Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev telephoned President George Bush with some new ideas on defusing the crisis, but the White House kept the details confidential. European Community nations prepared to resume their attempts to secure an Iraqi withdrawal by promising a Middle East peace conference that would address the Palestinian problem.

Another European initiative, from Nordic countries, offered to supply a UN peacekeeping force for Kuwait after an Iraqi pullout. Meanwhile, the Canadian government committed six more CF-18 jet fighters, a Boeing 707 air-to-air

refuelling plane and 130 additional support personnel to its forces already in the Gulf (pages 32 and 36). And at week’s end, there were unconfirmed reports, which Ottawa denied, that Canada had a contingency plan to send 5,000 ground troops, equipped with tanks and artillery.

The last-minute burst of diplomatic and military activity followed a failed Jan. 9 meeting in Geneva between U.S. Secretary of State James Baker and Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz. It was the two countries’ first high-level encounter since the start of the crisis. The talks lasted

more than six hours and raised expectations of an imminent breakthrough. At Geneva’s Hotel Intercontinental, where the meeting was held, staff members raised a three-foot plywood peace dove on a pole in front of the entrance. And as the session dragged on, analysts began to speculate that the two ministers were making progress. White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said during a lunch break that the talks were “substantive.”

But when a sombre-looking Baker emerged at the conclusion of the talks, he swiftly dispelled hope. Declared the secretary of state:

“Regrettably, I heard nothing today that suggested to me any Iraqi flexibility.” Baker added that if Iraq chose to continue its “brutal” occupation of Kuwait, it would be “choosing a military confrontation which it cannot win.”

Later, he flew to Saudi Arabia and other Arab capitals for discussions before a meeting that he had scheduled with Prime Minister Brian Mulroney in Ottawa on Sunday on his way back to Washington.

In his public summing-up,

Aziz did not even refer to Kuwait. Instead, he emphasized the nearly 24-year Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, in defiance of UN resolutions. Said Aziz: “The Palestinian question is a matter of national security to Iraq.” And when a reporter asked him if Iraq would attack Israel should war break out in the Gulf, Aziz replied without hesitation: “Yes. Absolutely, yes.” He also said that he had declined to accept from Baker a letter that Bush had written to Hussein because its language was not “polite.”

In Washington, Bush commented that Hussein had given the United States “a total stiff-arm, a total rebuff.” He said that he had not yet decided to go to war if the Iraqis failed to withdraw by Jan. 15.

But he added that he was "more determined than ever” that Baghdad must accept the UN deadline.

The President also said that his letter to Hussein was “not rude,” but “direct.” The letter, the text of which White House officials released at week’s end, told ^

Hussein that “Iraq cannot | and will not be able to hold on g to Kuwait or exact a price for £ leaving.” It added that “you * will be held directly responsible for terrorist actions against any member of the coalition. The American people would demand the strongest possible response. You and your country will pay a terrible price if you order unconscionable acts of this sort.”

Shortly after the Geneva meeting ended, the United Nations announced that Pérez de Cuéllar would fly to Baghdad for talks with Hussein on the weekend. Before he left, he met in New York City with External Affairs Minister Joe Clark, who handed him a letter from the Prime Minister. The text was not released, but a spokesman said that it set forth proposals that included a recognition of Iraq’s need for better access to the Persian Gulf and the formation of a peacekeeping force with a Canadian component. Pérez de Cuéllar talked in Paris with French President François Mitterrand and in Geneva with the 12 EC foreign ministers, whose own offer to meet Aziz in Luxembourg or Algiers the Iraqis had rejected.

Determined: Mitterrand had already said that he would continue his own peace efforts until the UN deadline passed. But if the Iraqis had not withdrawn by then, he said, war was “practically certain” and France (which has 10,000 troops, 40 fighter aircraft and 14 warships in the Gulf) would take part in it. Still, the EC members seemed determined to make one last attempt to persuade Hussein to withdraw. Both they and the UN chief expressed a willingness to sponsor a wider Middle East peace conference that would take up the case of the Palestinians—but only after an Iraqi withdrawal. Washington rejected that linkage, but some analysts speculated that the administration might privately acquiesce to a conference if it did not appear to appease Hussein in the process. Said Geoffrey Kemp of Washington’s Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: “The linkage is already there. The question is how it’s presented and packaged.”

Details of the UN peace plan began to emerge even before Pérez de Cuéllar reached Baghdad. The proposal was initiated by the Nordicbloc nations—Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Iceland—which offered to provide troops for an observer force under the blue-


and-white UN flag. That force would monitor a phased withdrawal of the estimated half-million Iraqi troops in Kuwait, which Baghdad has proclaimed to be the country’s 19th province. After the pullout, a larger UN peacekeeping force would deploy within Kuwait, while negotiations took place between Iraq and the emirate’s restored government. Later, there would be an international peace conference on all Middle East issues. German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher said that the EC ministers to whom Pérez de Cuéllar outlined the plan thought that it was “a good idea.”

Emotional: While the new diplomatic initiatives took shape, the Senate and the House of Representatives began their historic— and emotional—three-day debate on authorizing military action or continuing to apply pressure on Iraq through UN-mandated economic sanctions. Bush claimed that he did not need congressional authorization to make war. But he clearly wanted it, partly to deflect domestic antiwar sentiment— opinion polls were showing the American public about equally divided—and partly to convince

Hussein that the country was behind him.

Although the division was not strictly along party lines, most congressional Democrats favored allowing more time for sanctions to work. Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts said that Bush had “lit the fuse of war,” and he added that the fuse would “reach the

powder” unless the Senate put it out. Senator Sam Nunn of Georgia, chairman of the Senate armed services committee, said that every member of Congress had to ask if he would be able to tell parents, spouses and children of Americans killed in a war that the sacrifice was for a vital cause and that there was no other choice. Declared Nunn: “At this time, I cannot.” Most Republicans, on the other hand, supported imminent military action. Senate Republican leader Robert Dole of Kansas said that giving Bush the authority to make war “would strengthen his hand for peace, not give him a licence to see how fast we can become engaged in conflict.” Underscoring the grave tone of the debate in both houses, Democratic Speaker Thomas Foley ended his speech with a prayer: “May God bless us and guide us and help us in the fateful days that lie ahead.”

Authority: Late on Saturday, both bodies finally gave Bush the authority he wanted: the Senate by a 52-to-47 vote, the House by 250 to 183. Not since 1941, following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, had Congress faced such a clear choice on whether to go to war (since then, presidents have acted largely on their own authority). The congressional votes, Bush said afterwards, sent “the clearest message” to Hussein that he must leave Kuwait. He added: “Peace is everyone’s goal, peace is in everyone’s prayers, but it is for Iraq to decide.”

In fact, it remained unclear exactly

when the deadline for withdrawal would expire.

U.S. officials claimed that because the Security Council voted in New York, the deadline would be midnight on Tuesday EST, or 8 a.m. Wednesday in the Gulf. Asked whether Hussein would have time to withdraw by then, Bush said that he did not wish to signal any flexibility. But he

added: “If he starts now to do what he should have done weeks ago, clearly that would make a difference.”

‘Blood’: In Baghdad, Hussein showed no sign of compromise. He told the top leaders of his ruling party that he would make American soldiers “swim in their own blood.” And later, addressing a conference of radical Moslems, he called the threatened conflict “a showdown between the infidel and believers, between good and evil.” The delegates issued a statement declaring a jihad, or holy war, against the Americans and their allies immediately after fighting begins. The statement said that U.S. and allied interests around the world “must be exploded and destroyed.” But at Mecca, Islam’s holiest site, a rival conference of Moslem leaders denounced

the Baghdad regime as “non-

Moslems” and urged Iraqi

soldiers to disobey orders because Hussein had violated the tenets of Islam by invading a fellow Moslem country.

For its part, the Federal Bureau of Investigation reacted to Arab threats of terrorist action by questioning a number of prominent ArabAmericans—and putting some of them under

surveillance. Canadian security forces took similar, although less intrusive, action (page 36). Arab-Americans responded with angry protests, claiming that their community’s loyalty had been impugned. “This is not the way to attack terrorism,” said James Zogby, director of Washington’s Arab American Institute. “It is

the way to inflame passions against the ArabAmerican community.”

Still, state department spokesman Richard Boucher claimed on Friday that the administration had evidence that Iraqi-supported terrorists were planning to mount attacks against Americans “in most regions of the world.” In

Bonn, German police raided the homes of several Arabs and made two arrests. “Threats have been made, and we assume they are serious,” said a spokesman for the counterterrorist police.

Military analysts busily speculated on the likely duration and outcome of a war. Most

predicted that hostilities would begin with a massive around-the-clock blitz on Iraqi targets by the 1,500 landand carrier-based allied warplanes. Most of them maintained that the war would not last more than a month. Henry Dodds, editor of the authoritative, Londonbased Jane’s Intelligence Review, set out a


number of possibilities, all of them forecasting an allied victory.

Dodds said that Hussein might seek peace within a few hours in the face of overwhelming allied superiority. Or, he added, Hussein could endure allied aerial bombardment for two or three days to maintain some dignity, before beginning to withdraw. A third possibility, said Dodds, was that the air attack would be followed by a ground assault on Iraqi forces in Kuwait, triggering largescale mutiny and desertion among the Iraqi troops and ending the war in about seven days. Another possibility, he said, was that Iraqi forces might fight with high morale and good leadership, but give up after about 17 days. And like most military and political analysts, Dodds discounted the use of tactical nuclear weapons by the allies.

Strikes: Canada’s likely role in a war became the subject of a new controversy last week. On Friday, when Gen.

John de Chastelain, the Canadian Forces chief of staff, announced the dispatch of six more CF-18s to the Gulf, he declined to rule out the possibility that Canadian aircraft might join in offensive strikes. The government, he said, had made no decision on the subject. But he noted that Canada was committed to the UN Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force.

De Chastelain also said that Canadian officials were talking to the British about sending a military field hospital with roughly 500 related personnel to help provide services for the 30,000 British troops in Saudi Arabia. He refused to predict the number of casualties likely to be sustained in a war with Iraq, but he commented: “Any war is brutal.” Liberal external affairs critic Lloyd Axworthy accused Prime Minister Mulroney of breaking an undertaking not to make any further commitments in the Gulf without consulting Parliament, which Mulroney has recalled for a special debate this week. The Prime Minister’s decision to send the aircraft was “another real transgression,” said Axworthy.

The reports of a contingency plan to send 5,000 Canadian

ground troops to the area drew similar angry comments from opposition spokesmen.

Stock markets around the world reacted nervously last week, rising and falling with each dramatic new development. Economists said that if war begins, its economic impact will depend on how long the fighting lasts and on how much damage is inflicted on Gulf oil

facilities. The world’s economies, they said, could absorb a short war ending in an Iraqi defeat. But if the conflict is protracted and Saudi oil installations are badly damaged, the world could be plunged into a far deeper recession, with oil rising to as much as $80 a barrel from about $30. Said James Barty of London’s Morgan Grenfell merchant bank: “It would all depend on what happens to oil prices, and that depends on how nasty the war is.”

In Germany, France, Britain and Italy, hundreds of thousands of antiwar demonstrators took to the streets last Saturday. An estimated quarter of a million Germans, many chanting “No blood for oil,” rallied in more than 100 towns. In Paris, about 40,000 people took part in two ral2 lies, and similar protests oc± curred in 150 other French 8 centres. Some protesters ^ shouted: “Mitterrand, you

are too old to play Rambo.” (The French president is 74.) London was the scene of a 40,000-strong demonstration. Still, polls indicate that most Britons support the use of force.

In Baghdad, most Western diplomats either had left by week’s end or were about to do so. Canadian Ambassador Christopher Poole flew out to Frankfurt with some of his staff on Saturday. Most journalists, too, said that they were planning to leave before the deadline expired. On the surface, life appeared relatively normal. But many of the capital’s four million people were preparing to evacuate the city. There were long lines at gas stations, and some drivers had to wait for four hours to fill their

tanks. Used-car lots did a roaring trade as residents sought inexpensive transportation to take their families to safer locations in the countryside. Staple goods, including bread, milk and tea, were in short supply. Iraqi Airways, the only carrier that was still flying regularly in and out of Baghdad, was not accepting reservations after Jan. 16.

Still, some Baghdad residents seemed confident that war would be avoided. One driver, who identified himself only as Abar, said as he watched a long line of vehicles waiting for gasoline: “People are fools nowadays. They think war is right around the comer. There will be no war, trust me.” But some of the optimism and martial spirit evident earlier in the crisis appeared to be evaporating. And perhaps only Saddam Hussein himself knew whether he planned to reverse course at the last moment—or lead his people into a major war.