Gulf crisis: Anger in US at Iraq's narrow escape

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE UNITED States shifted its rhetoric from the issue of United Nations arms inspectors to the removal of Saddam Hussein yesterday, amid mounting frustration after the Iraqi President dodged another David and Goliath military confrontation.

The crisis demonstrated "that Saddam Hussein remains an impediment to the well-being of his people and a threat to the peace of his region and the security of the world", said the US President, Bill Clinton, yesterday. "Over the long term, the best way to address that threat is through a government in Baghdad - a new government that is committed to represent and respect its people, not repress them, that is committed to peace in the region."

There will now be intense congressional criticism of Mr Clinton, for failing to press ahead with military action when he had the chance, and new demands for efforts to replace President Saddam. "There must be a successor regime in Iraq that will treat the world better than that of Saddam," said Senator Richard Lugar, a Republican. "It would appear that Saddam is going to keep the weapons, and this is going to lead either to his overthrow by the people of his country or... a military action by the rest of the world," he said.

Washington was declaring victory last night in its stand-off with Iraq, as Baghdad allowed UN weapons inspectors to return. But the confrontation was never about just the weapons inspectors: it was also about a much more direct attempt by the US to undermine President Saddam by military force; that has been thwarted.

The US decided after the last confrontation with Iraq, in February, that the arms inspection effort had run out of steam. It had always been essentially dependent on Iraqi consent, and when that consent was not forthcoming, the only option was to threaten military force. After going up that hill and coming back down several times, Washington became more and more aware that it was running out of ways to make the inspection effort stick.

For the last six months, the US has not been pressing its problems about the inspectors, letting a head of steam build up for a much more comprehensive programme of attacks. The air strikes that were planned were to start last Saturday, with Tomahawk cruise missiles, but to proceed with a much more in-depth attempt to "degrade" Iraq's military infrastructure and target key political sites as well. The hope was to build a consensus for strikes externally while preparing the ground militarily in the Gulf.

The White House had been urged by security advisers to strike last week, and it is believed that originally, the Pentagon planned a programme of attacks last Wednesday. But instead, it had held back until more aircraft were in the region. It is possible that the US Air Force, as well as the US Navy, wanted to participate: only yesterday did B-52s leave Louisiana. The strikes were to continue into next week.

President Clinton was to leave for the Apec Asian summit on Saturday, but had secretly decided not to go, and prepared the Vice-President, Al Gore, for the trip. Mr Clinton gave the order for air strikes late on Friday night, and the attacks were to begin at about 10am Washington time (3pm Greenwich Mean Time). At eight, the White House learnt of the new Iraqi offer, which threw everything into chaos. With an Iraqi proposal on the table which was broadly accepted by France, Russia, China and Iraq's Arab neighbours, that all broke up.

Throughout the crisis, the US has signalled clearly to those around President Saddam who oppose him that it wanted a change of regime. "We would look forward to working with somebody else," said the US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, on Friday, as the US prepared to strike.

The US has also been developing a new approach to the Iraqi opposition. "Over the past year we have deepened our engagement with the forces of change in Iraq, reconciling the two largest Kurdish opposition groups, beginning broadcasts of a Radio Free Iraq throughout the country," Mr Clinton said. "We will intensify that effort... to do what we can to make the opposition a more effective voice for the aspirations of the Iraq people."

The problem is that the Iraqi opposition is still too splintered and incoherent to present a clear threat to the regime. The US has often preferred to focus on stoking up military dissent against President Saddam, in the hope of provoking a coup against him, although without success. It is possible Washington hoped a week's worth of air strikes might lead to growing opposition within the Iraqi military, and an attempt to oust him. The end of the current crisis leaves Mr Clinton's security team with no apparent strategy for countering President Saddam. The weapons inspection effort can resume, although no one in Washington was pretending yesterday that they believed it would be an effective method of containment. After this, it will be very difficult for the US to line up diplomatic backing for air strikes again.

"There were many people in the administration who wanted - and expected - that we would significantly weaken Saddam with a heavy, sustained bombing campaign," an administration official told the New York Times. "But once again, we've hitched our wagon with Unscom, even though Unscom doesn't work anymore."

Robert Fisk, Review page 4