Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
21 - 27 December 2000
Issue No.513
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

Iraq tops future US policy

By Salah Hemeid

Outlining the new US administration's policy on Iraq, Colin Powell, whom president-elect George W Bush nominated on Saturday as his secretary of state, said the United States may "re-energise" the UN economic sanctions on Baghdad that have recently been slackened.

In his nomination acceptance speech, Powell, a former army chief of staff who led the US army in the 1991 Gulf War that drove the Iraqi army out of Kuwait, also lashed out at President Saddam Hussein saying he was sitting on a failed regime. "We are in the strong position and he [Saddam] is in the weak position," said Powell. "And I think it is possible to re-energise those sanctions and continue to contain him [Saddam] and then confront him should that become necessary."

Powell's strongly worded statement on Iraq came as no surprise to Iraq watchers, but its timing on the day of his nomination reflects the fact that Iraq would remain a major priority for the new administration.

Iraq immediately denounced Powell's remark and the Iraqi Commander of the Air Defence Units General Shahin Yassin said, "Iraq is not scared of the new administration's threats; they just make Iraq more determined to challenge the United States." Earlier, Deputy Prime Minister Tareq Aziz said Iraq was indifferent to the result of the American elections. "Whether the president is Republican or Democrat does not make a difference to us. We do not expect it to change anything," he said.

It has long been expected that the continuing crisis over Iraq would be one of the toughest foreign policy problems that would face any new US administration.

Recent months have witnessed some important developments which showed Iraq's diplomatic resurrection after 10 years of political isolation and crippling economic embargo. Foreign flights have been landing in Baghdad since September, when the Iraqi government reopened the city's international airport, which had been closed to commercial traffic under the ban imposed by the UN Security Council after Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait. A stream of high-ranking official delegations has also been pouring into the country and embassies that were closed down after the Gulf War are re-opening in the Iraqi capital.

In recent weeks, Iraq has used the UN-sponsored oil-for-food deal to expand its trade and economic ties with many countries including some as far away as India, Malaysia and Indonesia. While Baghdad has reached a preliminary agreement to build a pipeline through Jordan, reports have suggested that an old pipeline through Syria and Lebanon to the Mediterranean might soon be opened -- a concrete step that challenges the US-led embargo.

In addition, Iraq still rejects Security Council Resolution 1248, which urges Baghdad to re-admit the UN weapons inspectors, and continues to defy the two no-fly zones imposed by the United States and Britain over north and south Iraq to protect the Kurds and the Shi'ites. In a stunning move, Baghdad positioned its troops last week in the Kurdish-controlled area, which has been declared off-limits to the Iraqi military.

As it steps up its defiance of America, Iraq finds more friends worldwide who increasingly show understanding of the plight of its citizens and who demand an easing or lifting of the sanctions. On Sunday, President Hosni Mubarak clearly stated in a speech to the newly elected parliament that Iraqis have suffered enough.

Iraq's transformation from international pariah to ally stems from a combination of factors including the five-week-long standoff in the American elections, the Palestinian uprising, higher oil prices, Iraq's improving trade relations and the erosion of international support for the sanctions. Nevertheless, the United States has denied that the embargo is weakening and that the Iraqi regime is drawing nearer to a lifting of the sanctions.

Questions abound regarding how the Bush administration will deal with Iraq and the likelihood of a fresh start that will put the decade-old US-Iraqi confrontation back into the headlines. Most analysts believe Bush's stance will lean towards rebuilding the consensus on Iraq in the Security Council and restoring its anti-Iraqi alliance in the region. Vice president-elect Dick Cheney said on Sunday that the entire Clinton administration's Middle East policy "was wrong" and needs to be put on a different track.

Still, it is hard to predict whether the Bush presidency will take any drastic measures such as adopting a military strategy to overthrow Saddam's regime, as some Iraqi opposition groups have suggested. Since the outcome of the Middle East peace process -- which influences American policy on Iraq -- remains an open question, it would be unwise for the Bush administration to go to any extremes at the present time.

The Iraqis may well be the best to know that Powell's words mean nothing more than the usual rhetoric they have been hearing from American officials since confrontation between the two countries began more than 10 years ago. It was Powell, after all, who favoured continuing the sanctions over going to war against Iraq and it was he who then abruptly ended the war and left Hussein in power. Powell the statesman is not expected to be less cautious and hesitant than Powell the general. But all seems still to depend largely on whether Saddam could continue to seek ways to escape the isolation imposed on his regime without provoking the new team in Washington

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