Al-Ahram Weekly On-line   Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
5 - 11 October 2000
Issue No. 502
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Little steps, big goal

By Dina Ezzat and Rasha Saad

As more Arab planes arrive in Baghdad carrying food, medicine and high-ranking officials, the economically crippling sanctions Iraq has endured for the past 10 years are being seriously challenged. It is likely the trend will pick up momentum as more Arab governments are pushed to respond to the sympathy shown by their constituencies to the plight of the Iraqi people.

"It is true that the UN sanctions on Iraq -- which do not include flying private non-commercial planes -- have already been challenged by international powers like France and Russia. But it is a different story when the Arab countries, who have, so far, been very accommodating of the adamant US opposition to any challenge to the embargo, start to send their flights as well," commented one Arab diplomat.

Jordan and Yemen -- who were not very critical of the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait -- have already sent planes carrying food, medicine, political sympathisers and high-ranking officials to Saddam International Airport.

Yemeni Foreign Minister Abdel-Qader Bajamal, who spent last Friday night in Baghdad, said his country will work "within the framework of the whole Arab group." Bajamal said he reviewed with Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tarek Aziz "several issues concerning joint Arab action... and means of working towards ending sanctions."

Bajamal's flight had circumvented a Saudi prohibition on travelling directly to Iraq by flying across Jordan. Bajamal said Yemen would encourage Arab states to oppose the air embargo. "This is not an easy task," commented one Arab diplomat. "Many Arab countries, for obvious economic reasons, are worried about what the US, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia have to say about this matter," he said. The diplomat said if things were that simple, an Arab summit would have convened a long time ago to discuss the Iraq issue. "But a summit was often, if not always, blocked by the US, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia."


Iraqis and Jordanians celebrate the arrival of a Royal Jordanian airliner with officials, doctors and medicines on board. It was the first Arab flight to Iraq in 10 years
(photo:Reuters)
According to another diplomatic source, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia are now more intractable over the Iraq issue than they were a year ago. "When we had the extraordinary Arab foreign ministers meeting in January 1999, just after the US-UK strikes against Iraq in late 1998, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia showed more flexibility on Iraq than they did in a recent foreign ministers' meeting of the Damascus Declaration countries [Egypt, Syria and the Gulf Cooperation Council] during the summer of 2000," he said.

Morocco was the third Arab country to send a plane to Baghdad on 3 October, while a Sudanese non-governmental organisation says it is planning to send one soon. The flights are aimed at bringing international attention to the plight of the Iraqi people.

The Popular Organisation for Supporting the Iraqi People in Sudan said it is planning to send a plane, but asserted that it will notify the UN and await permission first.

An Egyptian non-governmental organisation is planning a similar move, after securing the approval of the Egyptian government. The Egyptian Committee for the Lifting of Sanctions off Iraq (ECLSI) will be sending a flight carrying humanitarian supplies to Baghdad within the coming weeks. ECLSI had already sent a flight to Baghdad back in 1998. In a clear defiance of the sanctions, ECLSI is not planning to seek UN permission to fly its planes, as it did in 1998.

Kuwait is trying to play down the political impact of the Arab flights, as well as those already flown to Baghdad over the past few weeks by Russia and France.

"These flights carry some passengers and stocks of food for the good of the Iraqi people and not the Iraqi government; we are only pleased that the Iraqi people can receive food and medicine," Kuwait's Foreign Minister Sabah Al-Ahmed Al-Jabir said on Saturday. He advised against giving the flights too much importance. "What is really happening there is about interests... so let us not blow things out of proportion by creating a legend out of those flights."

But no matter what Kuwaiti officials say in public, the recent events are certainly not to their liking. In fact, some voices within the Kuwaiti parliament have called on the Sabah regime to blacklist countries flying planes into Iraq.

According to one Arab diplomat, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia are concerned that Iraq might be finding its way out of the sanctions. "This, they say, would not be the right thing to do since the Iraqi regime continues to be a threat," the source said. He added that Kuwait has asked the US, who opposes flights to Baghdad, to put pressure on Arab capitals, particularly the key ones, to refrain from going along with the current trend.

"But it is easier said than done. The governments are worried about public opinion that could obligate them to show clear sympathy with the plight of the Iraqis," commented another Arab diplomat. "Even if you are very keen on your relations with the US, you cannot totally ignore the power of the man on the street."

It is with this argument in mind that Tunisian Foreign Minister Habib Bin Yehiyah is planning a short visit to Baghdad. "Tunisia is one country where there is an unequivocal sympathy with the Iraqi people. The Tunisian capital has witnessed some of the strongest demonstrations in support of the Iraqi people," a Tunisian diplomat said.

Last week, in a joint press conference held in Tunis following Egyptian-Tunisian political consultations, Bin Yehiyah and Egyptian Foreign Minister Amr Moussa called for an end to the sanctions on Iraq. However, the two diplomats suggested that this be done within the framework of international legitimacy.

"The world, particularly the Arab world, has become sick of these sanctions that attempt to humiliate and continue humiliating the Iraqi people," Moussa said. Irrespective of whether this or that Arab country decides to send planes to Iraq or to postpone the move, Moussa argued, "the important thing is that there should be a move towards ending the sanctions. It is becoming totally unacceptable to freeze the status of the Iraqi issue at the point where it stands now."

"Being the leading power in the Middle East, Egypt should lead the Arab world in challenging the unjustified continuation of sanctions," commented Ashraf Bayyoumi, an ECLSI member.

The task is not an easy one. Washington has repeatedly been telling Cairo that the Iraqi regime "should still be kept in its box."

For its part, Cairo has frequently informed the US that Egyptian public opinion is becoming increasingly frustrated about the tragic toll the sanctions have taken on the Iraqi people. It is still hesitant, however, to make any moves in the direction of Baghdad.

Earlier this week, the issue was further complicated when Kuwait filed a complaint with the UN about alleged Iraqi threats against its neighbours in the Gulf. In a communiqué issued by the Kuwaiti cabinet, the government of Kuwait "called upon the Security Council to seriously and urgently deal with those threats and to take all the necessary measures."

Is this a Kuwaiti invitation for the US to abort the current trend of sending humanitarian flights to Iraq through renewed, and maybe even intensive, air strikes? Answered an Egyptian diplomat: "I think it is highly unlikely that the US will take this course. The mood, not only in the Arab world, but also in large parts of the US, will not encourage heavy air strikes against Iraq. Also, the French and Russians, who have already sent planes to Baghdad, will have to strongly oppose such strikes."

So what is going to happen with Iraq? A high-ranking Arab official predicted "a slow erosion of the sanctions up to a point where the US will have to be ready to end its silly policy on Iraq."


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