22 - 28 July 1999
Issue No. 439
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
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The (broad) view from Washington
Frank Ricciardone won a meritorious award for his role in upgrading and normalising US-Iraqi relations in 1984. Now his job is to oust the very government he has worked with for nearly two decades. While in Washington, Nevine Khalil spoke to the US special representative for the transition of Iraq about some of the paradoxes of America's Iraq policy
Eight months ago, the US, joined by the UK, launched an all-out air attack on Iraq, ostensibly to force Saddam Hussein to submit to UN Security Council resolution on Iraqi disarmament. This same reason has been put forward over and over again to justify maintaining the crippling Security Council sanctions imposed on Iraq for the past eight years. These protestations to international legality notwithstanding, Washington is not making a secret of its real objective vis-à-vis Iraq: toppling the current Iraqi regime under President Saddam Hussein.
In an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly, the man directly responsible for overseeing the realisation of this objective, US Special Representative for the Transition of Iraq Frank Riccardione, denied that Washington wants to install a "puppet regime" in Baghdad after Saddam Hussein is removed from power. He seemed very pragmatic, however, when it came to the democratic credentials of that regime. "We would take a very broad view of what democracy in Iraq should be," Ricciardone said in the interview.
Neither would Ricciardone condemn terrorist operations inside Iraq. "[Saddam's] regime has fostered a political culture where violence is integral to everything they do. They are reaping what they have sown," he said.
Insisting that a "disaster" was not imminent in Iraq as a result of the US's current strategy of "keeping up pressure on all fronts", Ricciardone was firm that Saddam Hussein must go. "We do not believe that Saddam can ever be redeemed... we're interested in putting him on trial".
Over the years, Ricciardone has cultivated contacts with many Iraqis living outside Iraq, and held crucial meetings with the Iraqi National Congress (INC) in 1992 just as the umbrella movement was taking off.
The US has earmarked some $105 million in all to buttress its scheme to overthrow Saddam -- $97 million-worth of goods or services from existing Department of Defence stocks, and $8 million from economic support funds for humanitarian relief and the Iraqi opposition.
The US is also willing to fund arms supplies to dissidents inside Iraq sooner rather than later. Ricciardone said "all kinds of doors could be opened" once the Iraqi opposition presents Washington with "a convincing programme". He said that when it is clear "to whom the weapons would go and for what purpose" Washington will foot the bill. "So far, these questions have not been answered, and we don't want to sprinkle guns around Iraq and get more Iraqis killed for nothing".
Despite strong criticism by most Arab governments, Washington will pursue its policy of organising, supporting and funding the Iraqi opposition, Ricciardone said. "We respect Arab advice, but when it comes to Iraq, we're listening to Iraqis," he emphasised.
While saying that behind closed doors "not one Arab leader has endorsed Saddam Hussein staying in office," he admitted that "there are disagreements" on how to change the regime in Baghdad.
The following are excerpts of the interview:
Why is the US organising the Iraqi opposition?
Our strategic goal is not merely the removal of Saddam Hussein, but also the normalisation and recovery of Iraq. This is much harder, and is much less certain than the removal of Saddam Hussein.
The US is making this effort partly for humanitarian and altruistic motives, but we are also doing this because it is in our national interest to have stability in the region.
What is your strategy to achieve this objective?
Until the removal of the [incumbent Iraqi] regime, we are keeping up pressure on all fronts. There is military pressure, diplomatic pressure to isolate Saddam's regime and economic pressure through the sanctions.
We also exercise political pressure by working with the Iraqi opposition who are focused on building for the future.
What is your vision of the role of the Iraqi opposition in bringing about change in Iraq, and will they take over leadership when this happens?
The Iraqi National Congress (INC) has an indispensable role, because our strategic goal cannot be achieved without Iraqis uniting to build a new Iraq. Americans cannot draw up an external martial plan that will transform Iraq overnight.
As Iraqis convincingly demonstrate that there is a better future after Saddam, we believe this will undermine his hold on power and help bring about the downfall of the regime. We also believe that the INC can serve as a conduit for material support for the resistance inside Iraq before the change in regime, provided they become an effective political movement first.
Finally, after the change in regime, Iraq will have urgent need for an international lobby, and who better than these Iraqis?
So the US plan does not necessarily include INC leaders taking over power in Iraq?
We're not forcing people into power positions, and we are certainly not supporting the Iraqi opposition or any of its individuals to become the next government of Iraq.
Where will INC headquarters be?
There are around a quarter of a million Iraqis living in the UK, and so chances are that London will be the headquarters.
The US is more than comfortable with that. Later, there could be permanent offices in New York because of the UN, and perhaps Geneva. If Arab governments become interested in supporting a future Iraq, it may well be that some of them would welcome having INC offices there.
When will the US begin supplying arms to the Iraqi opposition?
When we see the INC agreeing on a convincing programme, and we know that they represent fighters who are willing to die for that programme. All kinds of doors could be opened after that, and I am optimistic that they can do it.
At that point we would know to whom the weapons would go and for what purpose. No country around Iraq would let us send in arms unless they were clear on these two points. So far, those questions have not been answered, and we don't want to sprinkle guns around Iraq and get more Iraqis killed in meaningless violence.
Does the US condone ongoing domestic terrorist attacks, or black ops carried out in Iraq?
[Saddam's] regime has fostered a political culture where violence is integral to everything they do. They are reaping what they have sown.
How much progress has been made in bringing the ranks of the Iraqi opposition closer together?
There's excellent progress, but it's not easy because there's a tradition of factionalism among them. The Iraqis we are in touch with have agreed in principle to work for a united Iraq that overcomes these differences. That's our fundamental premise.
Realistically, how can these factions overcome differences which have accumulated over so many years?
There are no guarantees that Iraq will have a rosy future but this is precisely why we are working with the Iraqi opposition now. We have to do all we can to improve the odds that they will work together afterwards.
There is no reason why it should be a disaster.
Which factions are you in close contact with?
We are interested in a broad-based umbrella movement to include all factions, even groups who have differences with the US, like the nationalists, communists and the Da'wa party.
In the north there are contacts with the Kurds, not only the KDP and PUK, but also with Kurdish tribes and religious representatives who are very prominent within the INC. There are also multiple parties of Assyrians and Turkemans.
In the centre of Iraq there are Sunni and Shi'ite tribes who are interested in working with the opposition; and in the south there are multiple Shi'ite groups.
We have contact with the Iran-based Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) which is a well-known movement but there are others as well.
It's up to Iraqis to decide who has a role in the movement which will bring about a new Iraq.
What problems have you faced working with SCIRI, which is based in Iran, a country which has rejected US plans for Iraq?
The Iranian role is very ambiguous, and as far as I know the US is not in touch with the Iranians on any policy. A lot of what Tehran does seems intended to keep Saddam Hussein in power, and we cannot account for this.
The leadership of SCIRI is headquarted in Tehran, but I think they are there not because they wish to be, but because they have nowhere else to go after fleeing Saddam's regime.
At the same time, I don't believe they are completely at the mercy of the Iranians, because they wish to maintain their independence if they can.
The US is seen by many Arabs to be interfering in the internal affairs of Iraq. What's your perspective?
Some people imagine that we are trying to set up an American puppet regime in Baghdad but that is simply a misconception. On the contrary, we are supporting Iraqis who are trying to set up any form of government which will be at peace with itself and its neighbours.
But this could result in another dictatorship in Baghdad.
In the Arab world there are many forms of government that in one way or another reflect the wishes of the people. We would take a very broad view of what democracy in Iraq should be, and Iraqis themselves would decide what that is.
What has Washington done to persuade Arab countries who reject the US effort to overthrow Saddam?
The Iraqi opposition needs to secure Arab support, but they have gotten the cold shoulder in public from most of the Arab regimes, although in private there are words of welcome in many countries.
We are in consultation with Arab countries, Turkey and other countries in the region. From these discussions we [gather] that most seem to want the same kind of change in Iraq, but there are disagreements on how to promote it. People are still making up their minds.
All the Arab countries we have spoken to say they want to see a normal Iraq and relief for the Iraqi people, but we know that cannot happen until Saddam is gone. Not one Arab leader has endorsed Saddam Hussein staying in office or said that the Iraqi people need this regime. Not one.
But surely if the Arabs object to your plans to topple Saddam, they should know better than the Americans, since it is their region, their politics and their people.
Iraqi women mourn the death of their loved ones in the southern town of Najaf on Monday, one day after US strikes hit the embattled country. Washington will continue "keeping up pressure on all fronts" until the overthrow of Saddam Hussein's regime, according to Ricciardone. (photo:AFP)
We respect the advice of Arab governments, but keep in mind that as late as 1 August 1990, most Arab governments were telling us not to worry because Saddam Hussein would never invade Kuwait.
So, we certainly respect Arab advice, but when it comes to Iraq, we're listening to Iraqis. They are telling us they want a change of regime and our help to build a positive future. Those are the people we are listening to most.
What are the US incentives to keep the Iraqi opposition focused on the same goal?
The incentive now is relief. Iraqis want a normal life, and any successor to Saddam Hussein will have to respond to this deep Iraqi yearning for peace, normalcy and economic recovery. This is the biggest incentive of all.
There will be more incentives later, although no [economic] package has been developed yet.
What about the Iraq Liberation Act which was passed by Congress last year?
The Act calls on the world and the US to join in helping Iraq restore itself after there is a change in regime. While the Act carries no money, it gives the US president the authority to transfer to the Iraqi opposition $97 million-worth of goods or services from existing Department of Defence stocks.
We have not gone into that budget yet, but we have used funding from economic support funds. Congress has earmarked $8 million in funds to make available for humanitarian relief inside Iraq, support unity-building and activities of the Iraqi opposition, as well as broadcasting. We've used a few thousand dollars to support INC meetings, and we will be using more money to help them secure leases on offices.
What would the US position be if Saddam complied fully with all the UN resolutions, would Washington open up channels with his regime?
I cannot conceive of that. We do not believe that Saddam Hussein can ever be redeemed, and we will not deal with him. We already support an international campaign to bring him to justice. We're not interested in diplomatic relations. We're interested in putting him on trial.
We have provided up to $3 million to indict him, and dispersed $500,000 to INDICT, an international organisation founded by British members of Parliament who are building a legal case against Saddam and some of his aides. The campaign will amnesty those around him because we want to reassure them that we are only going after Saddam Hussein and his inner-most circle.
That's our outlook on the future of Saddam Hussein.