Iraq

DRUMBEATS OF WAR

Washington wants Saddam Hussein out of the picture, but will its allies come onside?

ROBERT SHEPPARD August 19 2002
Iraq

DRUMBEATS OF WAR

Washington wants Saddam Hussein out of the picture, but will its allies come onside?

ROBERT SHEPPARD August 19 2002

DRUMBEATS OF WAR

Washington wants Saddam Hussein out of the picture, but will its allies come onside?

Iraq

ROBERT SHEPPARD

IT WAS A WEEK WHEN sabres rattled with a peculiar intensity, and probably no little deception to boot. In Baghdad, tens of thousands took to the streets, pledging death to putative Western invaders, while Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein played a trump card: he would be willing to at least negotiate the return of UN arms inspectors, the issue that has made him even more of an international pariah over the past three years. Would that be enough to stop the drumbeat of war emanating from Washington? To satisfy the world that Iraq is not stockpiling weapons of mass destruction? Or was it just a ploy to buy deployment time should foreign troops turn up at his back door?

Iraq’s offer teased a diplomatic—if wary —response from several countries, Canada among them, and the United Nations. But it was followed by a Saddam rant warning foreign invaders to carry their own coffins if they came. Certainly the White House was not amused. If anything, America’s notion to bomb Saddam into oblivion—a move, some in the U.S. hope, might trigger a wave of democratic reform across the Arab world—seems to be gaining steam. Munitions plants in the U.S. are working overtime to replace the precision missiles that rained down on Afghanistan. U.S. military operatives are reportedly checking out landing strips in the Middle East. And, just in case, the U.S. is determinedly filling up underground reservoirs in Texas and Louisiana with 700 million barrels of oil, to cushion a major disruption of foreign crude from the Gulf.

The White House even invited the leaders of six exiled Iraqi opposition groups to Washington to meet key administration officials. Topping it all off: Gen. Tommy Franks, the U.S. commander who triumphed in Afghanistan, presented the White House with a new quick-strike plan to topple Saddam’s regime with massive British and American air power and so finish the job that the President’s father,

George Bush Sr., left undone when he waged the 1991 Gulf War to punish Iraq for invading Kuwait.

Will George W. Bush take up the cudgel, even in the face of growing international concern, against someone he has characterized as an evil dictator with a potential supply of nuclear, chemical or biological weaponry? “I’m not entirely convinced war is imminent,” says David Rudd, director of the Canadian Institute for Strategic Studies. “I think we need to see much more serious military preparation than we’ve seen so far. All this can still be seen as a great big psychological warfare campaign”—to get Saddam to comply with international inspections.

Still, Rudd concedes it’s hard to gainsay American resolve. Very high officials in the White House, as well as influential senators in both the Republican and Democratic parties, have been privately telling reporters that they believe an invasion to topple Saddam’s regime could take place late this year or, more likely, early next year before the hot weather makes it impractical for soldiers to wear heavy chemical protection gear. Bush is said to be totally committed to what he calls “regime change” in Iraq and has said so much on that subject that his political advisers say he probably won’t be re-elected in 2004 if Saddam is still in power then.

But all this U.S. attention is making Washington’s allies antsy. Last week, German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder spoke out strongly against an invasion. So did Saudi Arabia, which had invited U.S. troops to its soil during the Gulf War and now says it won’t be used as a staging ground. No lovers of Saddam, Arab countries see nothing but upheaval in their own backyards as fundamentalists might rage against the U.S. war machine. Even British Prime Minister Tony Blair, America’s strongest and so far only ally in this adventure—American and British jets have already attacked Iraqi targets 25 times this

year while patrolling a supposedly demilitarized zone—seems to be having some misgivings. His concerns are not so much military but what to do after Saddam is ousted: his 23-year-old regime is so entrenched that its ouster would leave a vacuum to be filled by minority factions, or worse, by colonizing neighbours like Syria.

By week’s end, Bush appeared to be moderating his position somewhat. He told an audience in Mississippi that “I will be patient and deliberate. We will continue to consult with Congress and, of course, with our friends and allies.” He promised to pursue all options, including diplomacy, but also declared that “as we see threats evolving we will deal with them.”

Pulling back from the brink? Hard to say. The new military plan brought to the White House envisions a surprise attack involving as many as 500 British and U.S. attack jets and bombers, and the deployment of as many as 80,000 troops, most of whom could be airlifted to battlefronts in

as quickly as a week, some experts say. Code-named Inside Out, this operation actually calls for fewer troops and consequently a much shorter—and less politically sensitive—buildup than a previous plan preferred by the Pentagon. But it would also likely entail many more civilian casualties as the idea is to strike quickly at Baghdad, the epicentre of the Saddam regime, then move out from there.

It is perhaps the realization of that tradeoff—fewer troops, more civilian casualties— that has captured the world’s attention.

Even Canada’s, where the timing of such an assault, in early 2003, could fall smack in the middle of a Liberal leadership contest or possibly an election. In June, Jean Chrétien dismissed any talk of an attack on Iraq, and Canada’s involvement in one, as purely hypothetical. Last week, Foreign Affairs Minister Bill Graham went further. Canada is not prepared to join any U.S.-led attack not backed by the UN unless there was a “clear and present danger” to itself or any of its allies. To date, Graham told Maclean’s, “I’ve been presented with no evidence from anybody that Iraq is planning an imminent attack or has access to weapons of mass destruction that would be used in such an attack. Nor any evidence tying Iraq to the al-Qaeda attack” on the U.S. on Sept. 11. “We’re not naive about Saddam Hussein,” the minister said. But Saddam has opened the door to renewed

UN inspections, and while that “can’t drag on forever,” Graham noted, it should be given time to play itself out.

In any event, Canadian military involvement in an anti-Saddam campaign might be moot: Canada chose not to replace its Afghanistan contingent, citing lack of resources, when a six-month tour of duty ended last month. As well, some defence analysts say Canada expended close to its entire stock of laser-guided missiles during the Kosovo war three years ago and that these have not been replaced.

Add to this something of a sea change in Canadian public opinion. Over the past few months, Canadian support for U.S. causes and the war against terrorism has fallen off noticeably, says Ottawa-based pollster Frank Graves of Ekos Research Assoc. In January, 52 per cent of Canadians were prepared to back an attack against Iraq while 26 per cent opposed it. By April, the numbers were almost reversed: 42 per cent opposed, 35 per cent in support. “I think we are seeing some of the old American antipathy reasserting itself,” says Graves. “I wouldn’t put it up there with health care or the economy. But Canadians’ sense of our distinct place in the world—especially, distinct from what the U.S. is doing—has very important implications politically.”

Public opinion can change quickly, of course. But opinion-shaping, even alliancebuilding, may not be what this latest gambit is all about. Amid the back and forth last week, it was hard to tell whether Washington was trying to lay the public relations groundwork for a war, or whether the international community was seeking to out the dimensions of a possible stealth attack. In George Bush’s White House, war with Iraq seems to have become a heady stew of filial duty, missed historical opportunity, electoral politics, even a grand endgame to right Middle East wrongs—too much oil, too little democracy—with one big punch. As one White House official told Maclean’s, “The road to the Middle East goes through Baghdad. Once you have a democratic regime in Iraq, like the ones we helped establish in Germany and Japan after the Second World War, there are a lot of possibilities.” And potentially a lot of blood as well. lifl

William Lowther