The Israeli-Palestinian conflict spells trouble for Bush’s plan to take on Saddam
TOM FENNELL,Bill LowtherApril292002
THE IRAQ QUESTION
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict spells trouble for Bush’s plan to take on Saddam
The stench of decaying bodies hangs over the Jenin refugee camp—invisible but indelible evidence that something terrible has happened here. Women, trembling hands held over their faces in a futile attempt to block the smell, walk silently through the mounds of rubble littered with the contents of hundreds of destroyed homes. They talk of snipers shoot-
ing elderly men, rocket attacks from helicopters, of people being buried alive in their homes by Israeli bulldozers. “They haven’t spared anything,” said Raja, a 44year-old mother of 10 as she gestured at the destruction surrounding her. “Not even children.”
The Palestinians say as many as 400 people died in Jenin during a 10-day battle with the Israeli army. The Israelis claim 70 armed terrorists were killed. U.S. Sec-
retary of State Colin Powell travelled to the region last week in an attempt to negotiate an end to the bitter fighting that began on March 29, when Israel launched an offensive across the West Bank against militants who have killed more than 450 Israelis over the past 18 months. But he made little headway with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat or Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
The Israelis did pull their troops out of
a number of West Bank cities and towns, including Jenin. But in a final meeting with Powell, Arafat angrily refused to call for an end to the uprising against Israel, or even to implore Palestinian suicide bombers to stop their bloody campaign against the Jewish state. And the day following Powell’s return to Washington, a Palestinian blew himself up in a car at a checkpoint in the Gaza Strip, injuring two Israeli soldiers. “The great America came in and accomplished zilch,” said Efraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv. “The U.S. is the laughingstock of the Middle East.”
Worse for Washington’s long-range plans, Arab leaders gave Powell a cool welcome. In visits to Damascus and Beirut, he
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was told Israel had gone too far and that Bush had to offer much stronger support for the Palestinians. And on Powell’s scheduled second visit with Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, he was shunned outright when the president suddenly became “indisposed.” All that spells trouble for George W Bush’s plans to open a second front in his war against terror by taking on Iraqi President Saddam Hussein this fall. With the Israeli-Palestinian conflict inflaming emotions in the region, and with Powell returning to Washington empty-handed, any move against Saddam will now likely have to wait until well into next year. “An attack on Iraq is absolutely not viable in the near future,” says retired Rear Admiral Eugene Carroll, a Washington military analyst. “The Middle East cannot contain two conflicts at the same time.”
Buoyed by the anti-terror coalition’s extraordinarily quick overthrow of Afghanistan’s Taliban government, hawks in the Bush administration, including VicePresident Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld, believed they could oust Saddam in a matter of weeks. But in private talks with Bush prior to leaving for the Middle East, Powell convinced the President there can be no move against Iraq until fighting between the Israelis and Palestinians subsides. Certainly there is little support for an attack among Arabs. “We don’t understand,” said Jumana Bishara, a Palestinian who joined massive street protests against Israel in Cairo, “why innocent people should pay if America wants to get at Saddam.”
An assault on Iraq, which the Bush administration accuses of developing weapons of mass destruction and sponsoring terror, was high on the agenda when the President hosted British Prime Minister Tony Blair on April 7 at his ranch in Crawford, Tex. “I have made up my mind that Saddam needs to go,” Bush told reporters. Blair was equally determined. “The regime of Saddam is detestable,” he said. “To allow weapons of mass destruction to be developed by Iraq would be to ignore the lessons of Sept. 11, and we will not do it.”
Washington is continuing to lay the groundwork for an attack. The CIA has presented Bush with a plan to destabilize Saddam with a massive covert action campaign. While details of the plan have not
been made public, it’s believed the CIA plans to build a major broadcasting tower on the Iraqi border, most likely in Turkey, which would bombard the country 24 hours a day with stories detailing the cruelty of Saddam and his family. The broadcasts could also dwell on the fortune Saddam has hidden in bank accounts around the world. As well, the CIA is expected to greatly increase funding for dissident groups inside and outside of Iraq.
There are few in the U.S. military who believe Bush will wait beyond the end of next year before finishing what his father started more than a decade ago in the Gulf War. And some politicians, including British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, say that, by planning to invade Iraq, Bush may be trying to avoid the fate of his father. George Bush Sr. was riding high in popularity polls after the Gulf War. Yet he failed to be re-elected when the focus returned to domestic issues and the sputtering U.S. economy. With a victory over Saddam, and by keeping America on a war footing, his son would be difficult to defeat.
The trigger for an attack, if it comes, will likely be increased U.S. demands that Saddam open the country—even his palaces—to UN weapons inspectors. The Iraqi dictator will have no choice but to refuse, analysts say, which is the excuse Washington will use to move against Baghdad. “When this president runs for a second term in 2004,” said a senior Bush political adviser, “Saddam will be out of power and probably dead—that’s the game plan.”
But if the U.S. proceeds, it will likely have to attack without full Arab support. There is so little backing in the Middle East for an Iraqi offensive that analysts believe some Arab regimes, including Saudi Arabia and Egypt, could be toppled in mass uprisings if they helped the U.S. invasion. “Even if the leaders agreed with the United States that Saddam is bad for Iraq,” says Joe Stork, an adviser with the Washington-based think-tank Foreign Policy in Focus, “their people wouldn’t support it.”
Over the past two weeks, Cairo has already seen some of the worst protests in recent history against Israel and America. Some analysts have speculated that if the United States took a hard line against Israel, Arab leaders might be more inclined to back an attack on Iraq. But others say
even that wouldn’t help. “We are not ready to sell Saddams neck for Palestinian pacification,” said Abdullah al-Ashaal, a professor of International Law at the University of Cairo. “We feel that the Iraqi people need some sort of justice now because they have been harassed between the United States and Saddam himself.”
Powell’s visit to the region failed to produce any breakthrough that could even begin to change Arab public opinion. The secretary of state met with Sharon three times and Arafat twice. While Sharon said he would agree to participate in a regional peace summit with Arafat, no Arab leaders, at least publicly, said they were willing to sit down with the Israeli leader. Israeli tanks, meanwhile, continued to surround a number of West Bank towns and refugee camps. Acting on a tip, Israeli agents also arrested Marwan Barghouti, a top Palestinian official who they say is the master-
mind behind a number of suicide bombings. And despite a direct appeal from Powell, Israel refused to release Arafat from his shattered compound, where he had been held for more than eight weeks.
Even as Arab states oppose an attack on Iraq, there is little support for such an offensive in other parts of the world. On his return to London, Blair faced a stormy meeting with his own Labour Party, as many MPs openly criticized his stance on Iraq. Almost 150 MPs, including 125 from Blair’s own party, signed a House of Commons motion expressing “deep unease” about possible action against Saddam. As for the rest of Europe? “All European nations,” said German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, “would view the broadening of the war on terrorism to include Iraq highly skeptically.” In Canada, Jean Chretien has been asked repeatedly if the country would support an invasion,
but he has dismissed the question as hypothetical, saying Bush has not raised the issue in discussions.
Washington is hoping that a more concrete proposal for a post-Saddam government may help change minds. The State Department plans to host a meeting in June, probably in Germany, of all major Iraqi opposition groups. It may produce a plan for a new government—and a new leader. Among those being considered: Brig.-Gen. Najib al-Salhi and Gen. Fawzi al-Shamari, both defectors from Saddam’s army who lead opposition groups based in Virginia, and Ahmed Chalabi, leader of the Iraqi National Congress, a Londonbased opposition group. “We would like to seize the moment and move forward,” Salhi, 49, told Macleans. “We are waiting for the U.S. to take some practical steps to prove to the Iraqi people it is determined to topple Saddam.”
If Bush proceeds without Arab support, staging the invasion could prove difficult. Saudi Arabia has already made it clear that U.S. troops would not be allowed to operate from Saudi soil in any move on Iraq. But Pentagon planners say a new base in Qatar could be used as a launching point. The first step would be a massive air assault on Iraqi anti-aircraft defences and sites believed to contain weapons of mass destruction. That would be followed by an invasion of as many as 200,000 U.S. troops. But with the current turmoil in the Middle East, it is clear the next step in Bush’s war on terror will have to wait.
The Middle East and the NDP
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict casts a long shadow-one that fell last week over Canada’s weakened federal New Democrats. In an angry denunciation, former Ontario NDP premier Bob Rae lashed out at the party, lambasting it for its criticism of Third Way policies and its failure to come to terms with a market economy. But Rae reserved special condemnation for Svend Robinson, the NDP’s foreign affairs critic, and his recent antiIsraeli comments and declaration of outright support for Yasser Arafat and the Palestinians. “Mr. Robinson’s views are apparently now the official stand of the federal New Democratic Party,” Rae said. “They are not mine.”
NDP leader Alexa McDonough, whose party holds 13 seats in Parliament, initially tried to skirt the issue, saying both sides in the Mideast conflict were guilty of atrocities and affirming that her party remains “committed to the right of Israel to exist within secure borders and the right of Palestinians to their homeland.” By week’s end, though, facing a rising chorus of criticism against Robinson, she stripped the outspoken B.C. MP of his Mideast responsibilities, taking over the file herself. “I've taken on this responsibility at this time because of a regrettable public perception that the NDP has abandoned its long-standing balanced position,” she said. Robinson remained unrepentant. “I am taking the side of the oppressed over the oppressor,” he declared.
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