Al-Ahram Weekly
3 - 9 August 2000
Issue No. 493
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Front Page

Hard to believe

By David Hirst

David HirstThe Iraqi-Kuwaiti frontier officially ranks as one of the world's most dangerous flashpoints. But, these days, the only threat to man or beast, beneath a ferocious sun, is the snakes and scorpions which inhabit these burning sandy wastelands. "This is the world's most successful peace-keeping operation," said Ireland's Major-General John Vize, who commands the small UN force that observes and patrols it -- successful by the yardstick that his men have almost nothing serious to do.

UNIKOM is there because, during the night of 3 August 1990, President Saddam Hussein sent his "million-man army" across this frontier, and turned Iraq's diminutive southern neighbour into the "nineteenth province" of the motherland to which, according to a suddenly resuscitated claim, it historically belonged. The Zionist take-over of Palestine aside, he thereby dealt the greatest single blow to the existing Middle Eastern order since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, when most of its frontiers were drawn. He posed a dire and immediate threat to the rest of the Gulf and its fabulous oil riches, lifeblood of the industrialised world. He threw the Arabs into unprecedented turmoil. US President George Bush called him "the new Hitler" and five months later, in Operation Desert Storm, a 500,000-man, American-led coalition force liberated Kuwait and swept deep into southern Iraq, bringing Saddam Hussein's regime to the very edge of collapse.

Could it really happen again? Kuwait, for which the Iraqi threat is always, by definition, an existential one, is obsessed with the nightmare possibility that it could. It spends billions of petro-dollars on its defences since the invasion. Among these is a kind of Maginot line, in the form of an electrified fence, flanked by ditches, that run the entire, 230-kilometre-length of the frontier. It is largely symbolic, meant to deter smugglers, fugitives and infiltrators; UN soldiers say it could hardly even stop an armoured car. The international community lends some credence to Kuwaiti fears, in the shape of the 194 UNIKOM personnel -- backed up, on the Kuwaiti side, by a Bangladeshi infantry battalion -- who man fixed observation posts and patrol the demilitarised-zone that separates the two countries. Unarmed, they are symbolic too. They monitor land, sea and air violations of the frontier. But Iraq commits very few of those, far fewer, ironically, than the Gulf-based Anglo-American warplanes regularly in action over Iraq. Their operations are not authorised by the UN. "That," said a British squadron-leader who wished to remain anonymous, "leaves me in the odd position of totting up the transgressions of my own side."

The very existence of this "low-level war" -- as Pentagon officials have called it -- only comes to the passing attention of the outside world when Iraqi civilians get killed in sufficient numbers for the Iraqi government to make a protest about it. It began in December 1998, when Iraqi air defenses were ordered to fire on US and British planes enforcing "no-fly zones," and they, in turn, were authorised to relax their rules of engagement. Missiles and high-precision bombs have been unleashed on hundreds of military targets scattered across the country. The "collateral" damage is reported to average at one civilian death every other day.

It is the latest Anglo-American strategy for the "containing" of Saddam Hussein, the "keeping him in his box," that has been going on since Desert Storm. Designed to "degrade" his weaponry and demoralise his armed forces, it does not seem to bother him very much.

Kuwait Kuwait
HORROR RECALLED: (clockwise from top) Kuwaitis returning home after liberation; Iraqis continue to scour for food; an image of a war over oil
(photos: AP, AFP)

It would appear, indeed, that very little does. And if, 10 years on, this grim, deserted, hermetically sealed frontier symbolises anything, it is surely his indestructibility, and the menace that, so long as he is around, he will forever seem to represent. No ruler surely deserves a final reckoning like Saddam Hussein; and none has been so adept at deferring it. However, appalling the uses he has made of power, in his ability to seize and then perpetuate it, he has been one of the most successful despots of the twentieth century, seemingly proof against all the disasters he has brought upon himself, his regime, his own people and his neighbours.

The Kuwaiti invasion was the greatest, most patently self-inflicted disaster of all. Yet, in the decade since, he has survived mass popular uprisings, local mutinies, attempted coups, the defection of top henchmen and family members, an attempt on the life of his son Uday. UN sanctions have cost him a good $140 billion in lost oil revenues, he has lost control of the Kurdish north of his country, ceded his airspace to Western warplanes, and come under periodic Anglo-American aerial blitz. Yet he is not merely surviving, the signs are that, if anything, he is now regaining strength.

There is no better yardstick of that than his successful defiance of the UN endeavour to dismantle his weapons of mass destruction. Divesting him of those was the whole raison d'être of the sanctions regime, the central plank of America's policy and the reason for its periodic military onslaughts. But not a single UN arms inspector has darkened Iraqi doors since he threw them out in December 1998.

How does he manage it? Part of the answer lies in the terrifying charisma of the man himself, the omnipresence and total ruthlessness of the narrowly sectarian, family- and clan-based apparatus which he heads. But the other part begs yet another question: does the United States, the only party that could initiate a serious campaign to bring him down, really want to do so?

On the face of it, it does. Since the signing of the Iraqi Liberation Act in October 1998, it has been the official policy of President Bill Clinton that the US should join forces with the Iraqi opposition, led by the Iraqi National Congress (INC), to bring "new" and "representative" government to Iraq. But it took the US an awful long time to reach this position, and, even now, no one is more sceptical of its seriousness than the INC itself.

The scepticism is rooted in the opposition's bitter experience, in its belief that Saddam is still very much there because, in a disgraceful act of policy, the US did not get rid of him when that would have been physically easiest and most morally acceptable. In the immediate aftermath of Desert Storm it betrayed the great Shi'ite and Kurdish uprisings which Bush himself had encouraged. US soldiers were still deep inside Iraq, and poised to march on Baghdad itself; instead they virtually stood and watched as the elite Republican Guards, which they had left intact, crushed the rebels in an appalling bloodbath.

The reasons which made the US hold back then still exert a powerful influence today; Admiral Zinni, the US commander in the Gulf, has summed them up: "a weakened, fragmented, chaotic Iraq is more dangerous in the long run than a contained Saddam now."

Yet if the past ten years have taught anything, the INC contends, it is that, despite the risks, an uprising is the only serious way of bringing the despot down -- so obvious has it become that other methods, like sterile, static "containment," ever more morally and politically dubious sanctions and military coups, simply do not work, and that to wait for his assassination or some such inherently unpredictable upheaval within the House of Saddam is liable to mean waiting for a very long time. An uprising is the only method that can be effectively planned, the only one in which the better that planning, and the greater the resources put into it, the more likely it is to succeed.

Ahmad Chalabi, the INC boss, is the leading theorist and champion of an insurrection; operationally, it should take the form of a phased, incremental, coordinated insurgency; starting in the Western-protected "safe haven" already existing in the Kurdish north and in a new one to be established in the Shi'ite south, it would converge on Saddam's power base in the Sunni Muslim heartlands.

If Chalabi had his way, the Kuwaiti border regions, which are close to Shi'ite population centres, would become part of that "safe haven," of a heavy-weapons exclusion zone commensurate with the one already in force in the air. But there is very little chance, for the foreseeable future, that he will have his way. So far the US Administration will not even give his men weapons or military training, let alone persuade the Kuwaitis to take what, without cast-iron US guarantees, would seem to them the almost insane risk of opening their territory to a Contra-style insurgency.

Will Saddam Hussein still be around for yet another decade to come? Hard to believe, no doubt; but certainly no harder than the same forecast would have been a decade ago. But if he is, the achievement will have been so great, and the irredentist ambitions it is liable to have instilled in him so heady, that the Kuwaitis will be feeling even less secure behind their electrified fence than they do today, and snakes and scorpions will no longer be the only thing the UNIKOM peace-keepers have to worry about.

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