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Iraqi tour bears little fruitBy Al-Ahram Weekly's special correspondent
After a tour which took him to 10 Arab capitals, seeking support for his country's bid to end the UN sanctions and bring it back to the Arab fold, Iraqi Foreign Minister Mohamed Said Al-Sahaf returned to Baghdad last week apparently without clear commitments for support or solidarity. On the contrary, the main advice given to Al-Sahaf by most Arab countries he visited was that Iraq should comply with UN resolutions and refrain from provocation whether against its Arab neighbours or the United States and Britain with whom Iraq is engaged in a war of attrition over the two "no-fly" zones imposed by the two Western countries in northern and southern Iraq.
Al-Sahaf did not reveal details of his talks, but reports from the Arab countries he visited suggested that he tried to explain Iraq's position following the 24 January Arab foreign ministers' meeting which was denounced by Iraq for failing to back its demands to lift the UN sanctions and condemn the US and British air strikes against it the previous month. Al-Sahaf stormed out of the meeting to protest the lack of Arab support and accused some countries of preparing the ground for a new US strike.
Al-Sahaf's diplomatic crusade was coupled with a halt to criticism of some Arab governments by the official Iraqi media and also a conciliatory letter from President Saddam Hussein to Arab League Secretary-General Esmat Abdel-Meguid in which he suggested a high-level Arab meeting to discuss the overall issue of Iraq's relations with the Arab world.
Yet the question was raised whether Baghdad has altered its stance and if it is finally ready for some compromise that will help narrow the gap with fellow Arabs who have offered their help to ease the sufferings of the Iraqi people.
Despite the conciliatory speeches made by Al-Sahaf during his trip, there has been no sign that the Arab countries he visited were willing to abandon the stance they agreed upon in the joint statement their foreign ministers issued on 24 January in which they unanimously called on Baghdad to drop the strategy of confrontation with the United Nations and to resume its cooperation with the UN Security Council by implementing all its resolutions related to Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait.
Moreover, the foreign ministers decided to set up a seven-member follow-up committee that would contact the Security Council and press its members to work out a formula that would ensure the lifting of sanctions once Iraq complies fully with the requirements of its disarmament and other Security Council resolutions. But Iraq seems to snub the idea of the follow-up committee and the message Al-Sahaf was taking to the Arab capitals was that it is not helpful and, therefore, not needed.
So, now what will Iraq do? It is clear that Iraq has little room for manoeuvring, but one possibility is that it will use the next meeting of the Arab foreign ministers, scheduled later this month, as a platform to raise its grievances against the United States and urge Arabs for support. Indeed, Iraq has already asked the League's secretariat to put the problem of the two no-fly zones on the meeting's agenda.
This new tactic aims at shifting the focus from the issue of the Security Council's resolutions to what Baghdad sees as the more pressing issue of its daily confrontation with the United States and Britain over the no-fly zones.
For nearly two months Iraq has been making its defiance of the zones clear after its expulsion of UN weapons inspectors and the suspension of their activities in Iraq. By making the Arab foreign ministers debate the no-fly zones Baghdad hopes not only to highlight the issue, but to divert attention from the possible return of the weapons inspection system which it insists is "dead and buried".
Of course, the foreign ministers will argue that while the agenda of their meeting on 17-18 March will be open for inclusion of items proposed by any member state, their willingness to support the Iraqi demands will be proportional to Iraq's readiness to show more flexibility, whether in cooperating with the United Nations or in alleviating the concerns of its neighbours about its future strategies in the region.
Iraq's best chance to end the nine-year-old sanctions, the Arab ministers will argue as they did in January, is to implement UN resolutions and show good faith towards its neighbours. One way to do that is for Iraq to give up its reservations about the three panels which the Security Council set up last month to assess its cooperation with the weapons teams, the humanitarian situation in Iraq and the fate of Kuwaitis missing since 1990.
The establishment of these panels was supported by all the Security Council's members. Thus, Iraq's insistence on ignoring them will certainly backfire and Baghdad might even lose the little sympathy it has gained. Even worse, it could be a new flashpoint for another crisis with the United States and Britain. Iraq may be planning to keep its problems with the United Nations at boiling point and may even be pushing for another military confrontation which it hopes will stir Arab public opinion against the two Western nations. It might even hope that it will divide the Arab world into pro and anti-Iraqi camps which will insist on Iraq's compliance with the unanimous decision the Arab ministers reached in January. But will this policy, which has been tried before, yield results?
It is a risky game. Whatever the Iraqi leadership has in mind, expectations remain low that Arabs will be receptive to the Iraqi plans or get involved in a confrontation with the United States.
From the official Arab point of view, the entire debate will be pointless if Iraq insists on rejecting any solution that might come out from the current discussions on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.