Iraq: another Afghanistan?
Baghdad spent most of 2002 trying not to become another Afghanistan. Dina Ezzat reports with an eye on 2003
2002 could easily be called the year of Iraq. Throughout the past 12 months, the debate on whether the US would attack the Gulf country occupied a prominent position in the news. Would Arab countries support or oppose a military campaign? What would the repercussions of a strike be for the US, the Middle East and the oil industry, were just two of the ubiquitous questions.
And, since there has been no declaration of war, it seems more than likely that Iraq will also dominate the news in 2003, whether the topic is a military campaign and its fall-out or a decision to call off war in favour of trying to induce a coup. Throughout the Middle East, it can hardly be doubted that during the next few months Iraq will completely overshadow all other issues, including the front page standard "the situation in the occupied Palestinian territories".
Iraq has been at odds with the US since 1991 when George Bush Sr declared war against Iraq to expel its army from neighbouring Kuwait, which was invaded on 2 August 1990. This year, Baghdad was back at the forefront of media attention when in January US President George W Bush called it part of an "axis of evil" along with Iran and North Korea.
This renewed interest in the Gulf country seemed almost to have come from out of the blue. As one Cairo-based Iraqi diplomat said, "For years, under Bill Clinton's consecutive administrations, Iraq was on the back burner of US foreign policy. We thought that eventually, a solution would be worked out with the UN, but all of a sudden, the American president became interested in Iraq and started his threats of war against the government that his father had failed to overthrow back in the early 1990s." He added, "It's revenge that he's after. It's about Iraq's oil, Iraq's sovereignty and potential as a powerful Arab country to alter the imbalance in Arab-Israeli relations."
Regardless of Bush's motives, the threats from Washington and, accordingly, London, grew louder by the day. Concurrently, the justifications for a campaign underwent frequent changes. One day, war was necessary because the "evil" Iraqi president had killed a huge number of Iraqi Kurds. The next, it was all about Iraq's game of "hide and seek" with respect to its alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction. More recently, Baghdad was said to have links to Al-Qa'eda. Adding to the drama was President Bush's reference to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, as "the man who tried to kill my father".
Motives and sensibilities aside, the threats seemed credible enough for Iraq to worry. Iraq's return to the spotlight followed shortly on the heels of Amr Moussa's assumption of the post of Arab League secretary-general. Moussa, previously Egypt's foreign minister, took up his new position expressing his intention to activate the Arab League with respect to Iraq.
On his visit to Baghdad in January, Moussa convinced Hussein to resume talks with the UN on the return of international arms inspectors to Iraq to complete the job they left when they departed Baghdad more than three years ago. The ultimate goals of this move were the lifting of sanctions imposed on Iraq when it invaded Kuwait and to reintegrate the country into the Arab world. As Moussa put it during that visit, "Iraq is an important Arab country. It has to finish the implementation of its UN obligations and resume its important position in the Arab world."
While Iraq's Foreign Minister Nagi Sabri was meeting UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to discuss the terms for the return of inspectors and a potential end to the sanctions regime, the US president told the world he would go to war against Iraq -- with or without international support.
The focus of diplomacy consequently shifted from Vienna and New York, where Sabri and Annan met, to Washington, where Bush -- surrounded by his ultra-hawkish aides Vice- President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice -- started the sabre rattling.
International diplomatic pressure on the US -- if there was such a thing in 2002 -- was exercised through US Secretary Colin Powell, a staunch advocate of obtaining an international mandate for a war. Consequently, the pressure was on for both Baghdad and the UN to reach a deal that would keep the generals from gearing up for war.
On 12 September, the US president took "his case" against Iraq to the UN General Assembly, threatening that Washington would go it alone against Iraq. Four days later, a worn out Nagi Sabri left Annan's New York office, where he had been conducting marathon talks with Moussa and the UN secretary- general, to tell the eagerly waiting reporters that the UN head would have good news to share with them. Minutes later, Annan told reporters that the three-way talks brokered by the Arab League secretary-general had produced a deal: Iraq had agreed to the immediate and unconditional return of inspectors.
"You should have seen the reaction on the faces of American diplomats at the UN. They were shocked and they couldn't hide it," said an Arab diplomatic source who was on hand when the deal was struck.
But it was not long before the US had overcome its surprise and began pressuring the permanent and non-permanent members of the UN Security Council to issue a new resolution on Iraq under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, which allows for using coercive measures. Arab diplomats tried to lobby France, Russia and China to prevent the adoption of a new UN resolution that could be used as a UN umbrella for war against Iraq. But the most the Arabs were able to achieve was a resolution that did not make any direct reference to the possibility of war against Iraq.
On 8 November 2002, UN Resolution 1441 was adopted with the support of all 15 UN Security Council members, including Syria, to warn Iraq of "grave consequences" should it obstruct the inspections mission. "It was time to be pragmatic. We have to do everything to deny the Americans the chance to go ahead with their planned war," Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Al-Sharaa said.
A few days later inspectors were back in Iraq. For the past few weeks inspections have been going smoothly, and national capitals, with the obvious exception of Washington, London and Kuwait City, have praised Iraq's cooperation with inspectors. Meanwhile, despite Washington's orders to its troops and aircraft carriers in the Gulf to step up their preparations for war, hope persisted that the US might be denied a pretext for an invasion.
However, in a characteristically dramatic move, the Iraqi president, earlier this month, made an unexpected speech addressed to the Kuwaiti people to apologise for invading their country. The speech, read out by Iraqi Minister of Information Sai'd Al-Sahaf contained comments that could be construed as new threats against Kuwait. The negative impact of the address was compounded by the testimony of Chief UN Weapons Inspector Hans Blix and International Atomic Agency Director Mohamed ElBaradei who told the Security Council last Thursday that Iraq's report on its armament programmes, including parts pertaining to weapons of mass destruction, was incomplete.
Washington declared Iraq in "material breach" of the UN resolution. Threats were again on the rise. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak cautioned, again, that war against Iraq would be destructive to peace and security in the region. The Arab League secretary-general was again warning that war against Iraq would open the gates of hell in the Middle East, particularly in view of the unabated and apparently US-approved Israeli aggression against the Palestinian people. Saudi Foreign Minister Saoud Al-Faisal was again suggesting that war could be avoided. Qatari Foreign Minister Hamad Bin Jassim, for his part, reiterated that his country, a self-declared military ally of the US, might have to facilitate an American strike. Meanwhile, in London, the US was eyeing a potential new ruler for Iraq during a three-day Iraqi opposition conference that witnessed a lively show of the usual intra-Iraqi-opposition squabbles.
US Ambassador in Cairo David Welch says that the US administration does not want war. He argues that Washington is aware of the consequences that such a move would have on stability in the region. Welch was quick to add, however, that Saddam Hussein has not been complying with the Security Council resolution and that he must implement all his international obligations or face war. In Qatar and Kuwait, the site of an intensive US military presence, top US generals are proudly declaring that all they need to launch a strike is the word go.
On 27 January of the coming year, Blix and ElBaradei will offer the UN Security Council their full remarks on the Iraqi declaration on its arms programmes. That day will be crucial in determining whether the US will receive the international pretext it seeks for a war.
Diplomatic and military experts predict that if war will be fought it will begin somewhere between mid-January and late February. And, as diplomats and experts agree, once war starts there is no telling where it will lead.
A recent paper on a post-war phase that was put out by the American think-tank the Council for Foreign Relations underlines this uncertainty and advocates prudence by American policy-makers. Entitled "Guiding principles for US post-conflict policy in Iraq", the paper could serve as Iraq's horoscope for 2003 -- if a war is launched.
A campaign against Iraq is not just about winning the war, but is also about making certain that opportunities for a peaceful and prosperous future are not lost, the paper argues. As the authors put it, "If Washington does not clearly define its goals for Iraq and build support for them domestically and with its allies and partners, future difficulties are bound to quickly overshadow any initial military success. Put simply, the US may lose the peace, even if it wins the war."
Addressing the situations that might ensue if Saddam Hussein complies with the resolutions or if he is overthrown by an internal coup, the paper poses a scenario modelled on the Afghanistan experience. It proposes the establishment of a US coordinator for Iraq who should, "ideally", have "good standing on Capitol Hill, deep working knowledge of the US political process, and a strong regional background". And, "Because the coordinator will not have control over military planning, he or she should be well respected by the military as well." The Council for Foreign Relations advises that there be a coordinated US-UN presence that does not aim to project the US as an invader or occupying force.
Whether 2003 will witness the turning of Iraq into another Afghanistan is as much of an open question today as it was at any other point during 2002.