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Careless rhetoric will cost lives

No one asks about the `very strong smell of petroleum' surrounding the pax Americana
JUST EIGHT days ago, former Irish prime minister Albert Reynolds sat down to dinner with Iraqi deputy prime minister Tariq Aziz in Baghdad. The two men had already spent four hours in Aziz's office - Reynolds reminding the Iraqi of the need for compromise in any crisis, Saddam's man (in full militia uniform) insisting, over and over again, that it was Washington's intention to destroy Iraq.

By the time the two men resumed their talks at the Iraqi official's home, Mrs Aziz was already cooking their dinner in the kitchen: a traditional Iraqi dish of rice, chicken and lamb followed by ice cream and six cups of tea. Alcohol is banned for all officials in Baghdad. Mr Reynolds has always been a teetotaller.

"Tariq Aziz's suspicion was that the Americans wanted to wipe out the Iraqi people," Mr Reynolds told me last week.

"He said that repeatedly. He said if there was any other nation subjected to this treatment of sanctions, it would be regarded as a slaughter."

The man who helped to frame Northern Ireland's "peace process" was, of course, virtually ignored when he left Baghdad. By the time he arrived on business in New York at the end of last week - when the Stealth bombers were already lining up on the runways - he was able only to talk on the phone to a few lowly State Department officials about this trip. America didn't want any messages from Baghdad.

When Mr Reynolds drove round to the headquarters of the United Nations Security Council Official Monitors (Unscom) in Baghdad, he was also told - by one of three inspectors he met - an intriguing piece of information. A Finnish UN arms inspector claimed that Unscom was only probably three months from completing its work.

"Have the Iraqis been told this?" Reynolds wanted to know. The UN man had no idea - it wasn't his job to talk to the Iraqis. Reynolds went back to Tariq Aziz. Aziz said: "Decisions might have been taken very differently if Iraq had known about that."

Now it's easy to exaggerate a dinner-time chat between a Saddam underling and an ex-Taoiseach of Ireland. Mr Reynolds was a powerless attention- seeker, a US Official said privately. And it's true that Richard Butler, Unscom's head, had several times stated, if somewhat cynically, that the inspectors" work had been nearing its end.

But Reynolds had, nonetheless, touched the roots of this latest miserable, billion dollar crisis: Iraq's belief - almost unalterable and certainly not without reason - that the US never intends to lift sanctions.

Tariq Aziz's comments to Reynolds can be found in the annex to this weekend's Iraqi letter to the Security Council which ultimately kept the bombers on the ground - though it contains no reference to that $100 million which the US Congress has voted to overthrow the Iraqi regime. The UN can hardly be blamed for that.

In the end, then, it all came back to the purpose of sanctions rather than the undiscovered anthrax spores which may or may not remain in Saddam Hussein's laboratories. Reynolds had been sickened by the medical conditions and deaths of thousands of Iraqi civilians. Yet oddly, this plight has in a perverted way become just another reason to continue the UN's ruthless sanctions machinery.

When Madeleine Albright stood up at the UN to demand a continuation of sanctions recently, she argued her case by saying that there was photographic evidence that Saddam Hussein was continuing to build massive and opulent palaces for himself and his personal entourage all over Iraq. Aerial pictures showed the buildings under construction.

If Saddam Hussein could go on amassing his personal wealth, then sanctions had yet to bite him. The irony, of course, is that those who wish to maintain the embargo do so by demonstrating its failure. For if Saddam can still build palaces, then UN sanctions clearly do not work - but Madelaine Albright tried to argue the opposite.

European nations believe that sanctions have become a kind of dogma. Since they haven't worked for eight years, they must go on - and on and on. And no one is asking about what the French call the "very strong smell of petroleum" that surrounds the pax Americana in the Gulf. If the oil embargo was lifted, where would the current low price of oil collapse to?

Like a bad Western, both Baghdad and Washington appear to have adopted totally irrational policies. The Americans want to use force without knowing what they will do afterwards. The Iraqis risk an American offensive because they do not know if they have a future. Questions rather than rhetoric might be a worthy outcome of the latest nonsense in the Gulf.