America losing its grip on Mid-East

Failure on Israel, Iraq and Iran heralds the end of US dominance in the region, writes Patrick Cockburn
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The Independent Online
FOR a week, Bill Clinton has watched the US grip on the Middle East, firmly established by victory in the Gulf war, begin to weaken under the impact of three separate crises for American foreign policy in Iraq, Iran and Israel.

On the seventh anniversary of the first bombing raids on Baghdad in 1991, Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi president, was successfully defying the attempt by the UN monitoring team to see if Iraq had destroyed all its weapons of mass destruction. The first airstrikes began at 2am on 17 January seven years ago, and to mark the occasion students in Baghdad yesterday chanted: "Down, Down, USA! Down, Down, British Crown!"

HMS Invincible, the British aircraft carrier, will reach the Gulf at the end of the week after passing through the Suez Canal. It joins a sizeable American fleet, but the build-up of military force does not solve a key problem: that three permanent members of the UN Security Council - Russia, China and France - along with the entire Muslim world oppose the use of force against Iraq.

The White House claims that it still has President Saddam "in a box", but this was denied by a CIA report, dated 5 January and leaked in Washington, which judged that the Iraqi leader had come out ahead in the last crisis over weapons inspections in November. "Saddam," it said, "has benefited from the UN Security Council's reluctance to approve the use of military force or to impose significant new sanctions when Iraq obstructs the [UN weapons inspectors'] mission."

The CIA report, according to a little-noticed item in the Washington Times, lists the Defence Intelligence Agency and National Security Agency as concurring with this gloomy view. Only the State Department, where Madeleine Albright has been vainly trying to rally American allies against Baghdad, did not agree.

If Mr Clinton was in trouble over Iraq alone, Washington would be less worried. But on Tuesday and Thursday he is to receive two visits at the White House which will underline that the attempt to end the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, which began with the Oslo accords in 1993, is effectively over.

His first visitor is Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, who has long opposed the land-for-peace formula which was the basis for Oslo. Last week his cabinet endorsed a map of the West Bank under which Israel would keep some 60 per cent of the land, designated as "vital national interests", although it is inhabited by 1.5 million Palestinians and 140,000 Israelis.

Even this pullback is conditional on Yasser Arafat, the PLO leader, who sees Mr Clinton on Thursday, meeting a set of Israeli conditions which seem designed to be rejected. For instance, Israel wants Mr Arafat to clamp down further on Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic militant movement, but also to cut his police force from 36,000 men to 24,000 men. The Israeli leader demands greater Palestinian effort in "combating terrorism" - yet himself released Sheikh Yassin, the leader of Hamas, from an Israeli prison last year in order to win the return of two Mossad intelligence agents arrested in Jordan while trying to poison a Hamas leader.

Mr Netanyahu's calculation is simple enough. He knows the White House does not like him; in 1996 it did everything to stop him being elected. But Mr Clinton has always been averse to confrontation because of the six million-strong American Jewish community. The political activists and financial donors among American Jews are increasingly on the right and opposed to Oslo.

Mr Arafat, by contrast, has little leverage on Mr Clinton. The one factor in his favour is that the collapse of Oslo, and Washington's unwillingness to do much about it, has damaged American influence in the Middle East as a whole. When President Saddam defied the UN last November, Washington found that, partly thanks to Mr Netanyahu, it could not rally the Arab states which had supported the US after the invasion of Kuwait.

It is a measure of the skill of James Rubin, the State Department spokesman that Mrs Albright has not been the target of greater criticism in the US over her failures in the Middle East. On her first trip in November she failed to get Mr Netanyahu to abide by the terms of the Oslo accords. She then failed to get the leaders of Arab states to attend a conference in Qatar organised by the US - even Kuwait opposed military action against Hussein. Finally, Iran definitively broke out of its political isolation when it hosted the Islamic summit, which was attended even by Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.

American control of the Middle East after the Gulf war seven years ago was almost as absolute as that of Britain in 1918 after the defeat of the Turks. Whatever happens, US influence will remain strong. But failure to bring down Saddam Hussein, isolate Iran or oversee a peace between Israel and the Palestinians means that the total dominance of US in the region is coming to an end.