Iraq or bust
Not even North Korea's nuclear weapons would thwart President Bush's plans to launch a war against Iraq, Khaled Dawoud reports from Washington
The million dollar question to top United States officials, analysts and experts this week was: which is the more imminent threat to US security, Iraq or North Korea? Members of US President George W Bush's administration were nearly the only group to answer with full confidence: Iraq. Which made almost no sense to anybody else.
Both Iraq and North Korea are members of Bush's so-called "axis of evil", and their governments are deemed oppressive regimes that have no respect for human rights. But while Iraq has been co-operating with the United Nations weapons inspectors and submitting on time all the documents required under Security Council resolution 1441, North Korea has boldly admitted that it has its own nuclear programme and, in clear defiance of the international community, has ordered UN inspectors out of the country. Moreover, nearly 37,000 US troops are in close range of North Korea's missiles, and the same goes for allied troops in South Korea and Japan. Yet, all this did not seem stunning enough for US Secretary of State Colin Powell, who, in statements on Sunday, said he would not even describe the situation in North Korea as a "crisis".
Instead, Powell confirmed plans to deploy thousands of more US troops to the Gulf region, doubling their numbers from 50,000 to 100,000, in preparation for war against Iraq. Observers have agreed that the likely date for the expected US war against Iraq would be between mid and late February.
The massive American buildup and the general domestic state of alert in preparation for the war against Iraq led most observers to doubt Powell's claim this time that the US president has not made a final decision to go to war against Baghdad. Powell said Bush continued to hope "for a peaceful solution, but at the same time we are taking prudent action, positioning our forces so that they will be ready to do whatever might be required".
While Powell said Bush had not decided whether to return to the Security Council to seek further action against Iraq for failing to fully account for all biological, chemical and nuclear weapons in its 12,000-page weapons declaration which was handed to the United Nations on 8 December, he did indicate the process was nearing a decision- making point. "I think that this can't go on indefinitely," Powell said.
Two aircraft carrier battle groups, each carrying around 10,000 sailors and Marines, are within striking distance of Iraq. Two others were ordered last week to prepare for departure on 96 hours' notice, as were two amphibious warfare groups. The Navy has accelerated training schedules for other warships. Additional military personnel are heading for the Arab Gulf states of Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman and Bahrain, as well as other locations.
Another sign of imminent war, according to US military observers, is that the Pentagon has also ordered the deployment of the Navy's USNS Comfort, an 894-foot-long hospital ship that can treat soldiers who have been exposed to chemical and biological weapons. Officials said the huge ship has been ordered to set sail as early as this week.
Along with the military build-up, US officials said they were also involved in drafting plans for seizing of Iraqi oil fields, securing key cities and re- opening schools and hospitals after a possible US invasion.
UN sources say that as many as 4.5 million to 9.5 million of Iraq's 22 million people could require immediate food aid to survive once a campaign began. In addition to causing food shortages, war could drive some 900,000 Iraqis into neighbouring countries, with about 100,000 of those requiring immediate assistance as soon as they arrived, according to UN estimates.
After an invasion, a multinational force would secure key cities and facilities "for as long as it takes", one US official was quoted as saying. Pentagon officials and think-tanks supporting war against Iraq have estimated that the United States would need to maintain extended presence in post-Saddam Iraq, a period of time that could stretch from three to 10 years.
Beyond Iraq, the US is also crafting multibillion-dollar aid packages for key allies in the region -- Turkey, Jordan and Israel -- to help offset the economic shock of a war with Baghdad.
Military experts, backed by reports leaked to the media by Pentagon sources, said the US war against Iraq was likely to start with a massive air campaign that would be shorter than the 38- day bombing that took place during the first Gulf War in 1991. Thanks to smart bombs and satellite-guided missiles, the war plan involves rapid unleashing of massive air power backed by light, mobile ground forces trained to penetrate quickly into the heart of Iraq. As many as 250,000 soldiers, Marines, airmen and sailors could eventually be deployed to the region under the plan, but many ground troops would be held back at bases in Turkey, Kuwait and Qatar as reserve forces in case the initial invasion met unexpected resistance.
Such US determination to go to war against Iraq led social scientist Francis Fukuyama, who is close to the administration, to suspect Bush's real intentions. In a recent editorial at the Wall Street Journal, Fukuyama said that, "the administration's new National Security Strategy of the United States lays out an ambitious road map for the wholesale re-ordering of the politics of the Middle East, beginning with the replacement of Saddam Hussein by a democratic, pro- Western government."
He added that, "a variety of administration spokesmen and advisers have suggested that a different government in Iraq will change the political dynamics of the entire region, making the Palestinian-Israeli conflict more tractable, putting pressure on authoritarian regimes in Egypt, Syria, Iran and Saudi Arabia, and broadly promoting the cause of democracy in a hostile part of the world that has proven stubbornly resistant to all democratic trends.... [The Bush administration] is embarking on an immensely ambitious exercise in the political re-engineering of a hostile part of the world. "
However, Fukuyama cautioned against such an "idealist" US plan. He said that the United States had no record of implementing long-term projects "that would require willingness to do what it takes to build legitimate and stable political institutions in foreign lands". He added that "Americans tend to assume that democracy and US security go hand-in-hand, hoping this will happen in post-Iraq Saddam. But liberation may give way to something that seems more like occupation over time. The idealist project may therefore seem like empire pure and simple in the short run."
Finally, Fukuyama charged that the Bush administration was also obliged to make sure that "the American public understands that it is getting into an imperial project as opposed to a brief in- and-out intervention in Iraq. The grounds for prolonged military and economic involvement in the Middle East, and the kinds of sacrifices this may entail, have not yet even begun to be laid."
THOUSANDS of Iraqi children demonstrated outside the Baghdad headquarters of the UN Development Programme on Tuesday against US-led threats of military action.
Meanwhile, chief UN arms inspector Hans Blix will visit Baghdad in January, after Iraq announced that it had invited him ahead of a report he is due to present to the UN Security Council on Iraqi co-operation with his men on 27 January.
"We are exploring dates that would be suitable, both for Blix and Mohamed El-Baradei [director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency] and for the Iraqis," spokesman Ewen Buchanan said on Tuesday.
General Amer Al-Saadi, a top adviser to President Saddam Hussein, sent Blix a letter proposing he come to Iraq "between the second and third weeks of January" to discuss co-operation between the two sides, the official INA news agency said.
This would be in line with an understanding to hold regular high-level meetings reached with Blix in Baghdad on 19 November, Al-Saadi said in the letter, which was handed to the chief inspector by Iraq's deputy UN representative in New York, Mohamed Salman.
Expressing satisfaction with Iraq's co-operation with arms inspectors, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said he did not believe the use of military force against Baghdad was justified at this point.
"Iraq is co-operating and the inspectors have been able to do their work in an unimpeded manner and I don't see an argument for military action now," he said in an interview with Israel army radio on Tuesday.
Also on Tuesday, the inspectors fanned out to at least eight more suspect sites, including an engineering company owned by the state Military Industry Corporation, a military chemical unit west of the capital Baghdad, an oil research centre, an electronics factory that produces components such as transistors and a medical research centre.
An expected rift between the US and Iraq over the questioning of Iraqi scientists outside the country surfaced this week. Amir Al-Saadi, President Hussein's top scientific adviser, said on Monday the United States wanted to tempt scientists to leave Iraq and lure them into giving false information in return for financial gain.
UN arms inspectors began interviewing scientists over Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction programme last week, but the United States insists it should be able to take the scientists outside Iraq to interview to make them feel safer.
"This is an American plan with a clear aim. If it succeeds in tempting some of those [scientists] through promises, or maybe also through threats, it might obtain information, but false information," Al-Saadi told a visiting Spanish delegation.
"If such a thing happens, it would be beneficial [to the US] to add another 'material breach' and if not, then it is a step towards emptying Iraq of scientists," he said.
Iraq on Saturday handed over a list of the names of more than 500 scientists associated with its nuclear, biological, chemical and ballistic weapons programmes. The United States says it cannot vouch for the validity of the list.