11 - 17 November 1999
Issue No. 455
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
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Inept US policy keeps Iraq pot boilingBy David Hirst
Last week, the Iraqi National Congress(INC) held a plenary conference in New York, to choose a new leadership and rally as broad support as possible, among Iraqi exiles, for a concerted strategy to bring down President Saddam Hussein. No Arab country would ever accept to host such a conference; and it was partly because of US persuasions that, instead of its original choice, the North Iraqi town of Halabja, where 5,000 Kurds perished in an Iraqi gas attack in 1988, the INC met in New York. The most prominent and dynamic segment of the Iraqi opposition, the INC has always looked to the US for salvation, and there could be no more apt symbolism of that than the acceptance of such a venue.
On the face of it, the US responded with a clearer commitment to the opposition cause than it ever has before. Under-Secretary of State Thomas Pickering told the 300 delegates that the US stood four-square behind "a multi-dimensional strategy" to support "free" Iraqis not only "in the removal of the tyrant" but in "building a new, democratic Iraq". In line with the Iraq Liberation Act which President Clinton signed a year ago, the US released an initial $5 million of a promised $97 million for equipment and training. Besides such items as faxes, filing cabinets and computers, four rebel leaders, including two former army officers, are now attending a 10-day course on such things as "political opposition skills".
There is much derision and scepticism. They come first, of course, from Baghdad itself, which heaped scorn on "these rats and apostates assembled by the US". From an Arab columnist, who called the Iraqi
opposition "the most ostracised" in the Arab world. From a US Congressman, who said he "couldn't imagine Saddam being worried about being overthrown by Iraqi exiles brandishing fax machines".
More importantly, the INC conference was boycotted by large segments of the opposition itself, that fissiparous agglomeration of forces riven by ethnic, confessional, factional and personal conflicts, as well as by the divergent agendas of regional states to which they habitually turn for sponsorship. Major organisations which had been present at the INC's founding conference stayed away, from Ayatollah Baqer Al-Hakim's exclusively Shi'ite, Iranian-backed "Supreme Council of the Revolution in Iraq" to the non-sectarian Iraqi Communist party; so did respected individuals like the leading Shi'ite cleric Bahr Al-Uloum.
Iraqis in Baghdad welcome a British delegation who toured Arab countries to demand lifting of sanctions
Yet, despite the scepticism, one thing on which most of the opposition do agree is that the one external agency that can play a decisive role in helping them topple Saddam is the US. Some may be shy about saying so too publicly, given the low esteem in which US policies are held throughout the region; and, not surprisingly, Ahmad Chalabi, the moving spirit behind the INC, is much criticised for so openly and far-reachingly acting on this assumption. But even many of those who are not so shy about it failed to show up in New York. Their reason was either that they don't like Chalabi, and what they see as his high-handed, manipulative methods, or -- as Bahr Al-Uloum put it -- "the US isn't serious".
That the US just isn't serious, in fact, is the long-held opinion of virtually all Saddam's adversaries, not least the one, Chalabi, who has incurred such disapproval for trying so hard to make it serious.
With Saddam's invasion of Kuwait, the US ceased its surreptitious support of the Iraqi leader as an anti-Islamist regional "strongman" and its indifference to such atrocities as Halabja; George Bush cast him as "the new Hitler" instead. But, for the opposition, almost everything the US has done against him since has been either ill-conceived and incompetent or, worse, insincere and hypocritical. The scandalous truth, some say, is that the US actually likes the status quo, and such benefits -- strategic hegemony in the Gulf, lucrative arms deals -- as accrue from it. Others, less severe, share the widely held Western view that what, at bottom, plagues the administration is its fear of being drawn into a Contra-style insurgency, or a large-scale, direct military involvement in the all-too-probable event that, upon Saddam's fall, Iraq, this most strategic of countries, collapses into chaos and civil war, and the competing interventions of regional powers.
The opposition's mistrust stems, above all, from Bush's original sin: his betrayal, in March 1991, of the great Shi'ite and Kurdish uprisings which he himself had encouraged. Nothing has softened that mistrust since. Take what, over the years, has been the US's central concern, the elimination of Saddam's weapons of mass destruction(WMD). Whenever Saddam took his defiance of the UNSCOM weapons inspectors to intolerable lengths, the US launched air raids, or unleashed cruise missiles, on some target or other; then, honour satisfied, it fell back on the policy of "containment" -- principally economic sanctions and the "aerial exclusion zones" in north and south -- which, it said, was keeping Saddam safely in his "box". Yet, by the US's own admission, none of this stopped him from pressing on with his WMD development. Crisis followed crisis, until, late last year, with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright insisting on UNSCOM's right to "free, unfettered, unconditional access" to all sites, it looked as though things were coming to a climactic showdown. And, indeed, after Saddam finally expelled UN inspectors altogether the US and Britain mounted Operation Desert Fox. The heaviest raid since the Gulf war, it struck not only at suspected weapons sites but, more importantly, at institutions -- Republican Guards, Ba'ath Party, Special Security Organisation -- which are the bulwark of Saddam's power. It certainly shook the regime for a while but it did nothing to advance UNSCOM's purposes. On the contrary, it is now 10 months since there has been any on-the-ground weapons inspection of any kind. All of a sudden, that did not really seem to matter to the US any more; officials now contended, against all previous logic, that there was "no evidence" that he was rebuilding his "degraded" weapons system. The US shifted its main activities elsewhere. Since early this year the US and Britain have flown no less than 12,000 sorties in a relentless aerial campaign against Iraq air defenses. But this has had no effect on Saddam's WMD programme, and none, one suspects, on his grip on power.
For the opposition, these shifts and evasions merely illustrate that, at the end of the day, the US has no policy other than its obsessive, almost neurotic clinging to the status quo of containment and sanctions. All else is tokenism.
Now, in what amounts to another new departure, the administration has decided to support the INC. That, in effect, means supporting the popular uprising, or some variant of it, of which Chalabi is the leading exponent. His basic idea is that the opposition forces should converge gradually from the periphery to the centre, from Kurdish north and Shi'ite south to Saddam's natural stronghold, the Sunni heartland. They should do so in a phased, incremental, coordinated insurgency that encourages more and more people to join it as it goes along.
It has now become obvious, in fact, that an insurrection is the only method of removing Saddam that has a serious chance of success. Others, a military coup or the everlasting, ever-more morally dubious sanctions, have patently failed; and to wait for his assassination, or some such inherently unpredictable upheaval within the closed, incestuous universe of the House of Saddam, is liable to mean waiting a very long time.
The new US departure may look good in principle. But is it really serious? Or is it, the doubters ask, just another pretext for inertia and delay, for hiding behind the argument that such an enterprise requires long and careful planning, and, above all, an opposition that is a worthy partner for the US? "We should be under no illusion that this will be a quick, easy or simple task", Pickering told the New York gathering. "Scepticism abounds about your ability to act effectively as a unified grouping." That may well be true, the opposition says, but a main reason why is that the US itself has been so very poor a partner for it.
"Saddam's fall is guaranteed to happen sooner or later," said Pickering. Perhaps. But at the same time, however, the longer he hangs on the more likely it is that one of two things will happen. Either he will be internationally rehabilitated, because the US and Britain will be unable to resist the growing pressures, moral, political and commercial, for ending sanctions that are devastating the Iraqi people but doing nothing to remove or reform the regime. Or -- as Ragheda Dergham of the pan-Arab newspaper Al-Hayat said last week -- "the persistence of the status quo will turn Iraq into a time-bomb that will explode without notice or forewarning."