Iraq and the weapon that backfired

As the military alliance against Baghdad looks ragged, Patrick Cockburn considers how UN inspections allow Saddam to stage crises at will
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ARE the United States and Britain caught in a trap of their own making over the inspection of Iraqi non-conventional weapons? At first UNSCOM - the United Nations Special Commission set up in the wake of the Gulf war to identify and destroy products of Iraq's nuclear, biological and chemical programmes - must have seemed an ideal instrument to contain Iraq. Desperate to avoid an allied ground attack in 1991, Saddam Hussein accepted UNSCOM'S authority. Sanctions would not be lifted until it had finished its work.

In fact, inspections have turned out to be a two-edged weapon. The presence of UNSCOM in Baghdad gave the Security Council intrusive powers in Iraq. But it can only operate with the co-operation of Saddam. If Iraq does not provide "minders" to accompany inspectors they are not able to enter a facility. The Iraqi leader can stop their activities at any time and thereby provoke a crisis.

This underlying weakness of the US and British position over the inspections has led to so many of their present problems. Suppose the Iraqi leader now allows inspection on his palaces; he can withdraw that permission in two months' time. Even if there are air strikes, the inspection process can only be resumed with the co-operation of Saddam Hussein. Whatever happens, he will still have the political initiative.

There is a further disadvantage to making UNSCOM inspections the measure of the success of the US, Britain and their allies in containing Iraq. The Gulf war, fought to evict Iraq from Kuwait, was waged by a broad coalition under the umbrella of the UN Security Council. The obvious way to deal with Saddam Hussein, who has, after all, invaded Iran in 1980 and Kuwait in 1990, remains military containment by the US, Britain and the South Gulf States, notably, Saudi Arabia.

But because UNSCOM seemed an excellent excuse to continue sanctions against Iraq, the military alliance which won the Gulf war was neglected. After he took over, President Clinton simply continued the policies of George Bush. It was obvious that Iraq was concealing non-conventional weapons, but it was equally true, as Baghdad alleged, that the US did not want to lift sanctions whatever happened. Madeleine Albright, the incoming Secretary of State, announced as much in a speech at Georgetown University in Washington last year.

The best way of stopping the Iraqi leader from using his remaining stocks of non-conventional weapons is deterrence. He had far larger arsenals of biological and chemical warheads during the Gulf war and the missiles to deliver them. But they were never fired for fear of retaliation. The same is true today. Even Israel, not normally slow to claim threats to its existence from Arab states, has found it difficult to take the prospect of Iraqi attack seriously despite the claim by Richard Butler, the head of UNSCOM, that Iraq might "blow away Tel Aviv".

For seven years, UNSCOM and the weapons inspections seemed to work. Under the careful leadership of Rolf Ekeus, now Swedish ambassador in Washington, it made a show of impartially investigating Iraq's weaponry. Sanctions, only slightly modified by the oil-for-food programme, remained in place. For the US this was ideal. Saddam Hussein, as one official put it, was "kept in his box" from 1991 to 1996.

But if US policy was static, the same was not true of Iraqi politics or the Middle East. Attempts to overthrow the Iraqi leader by supporting either rebellion on the periphery of Iraq in Kurdistan and the Shia Muslim heartlands of south Iraq, failed. So did repeated military conspiracies within the officer corps of the Iraqi Army. Dissent within the inner family of Saddam Hussein, when his son-in-law, General Hussein Kammel fled to Jordan, was bloodily crushed. By August 1996, Saddam felt strong enough to send his tanks back into his Kurdish provinces.

At the same time, the US failed to defuse the Arab-Israeli conflict. This seemed possible after the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, bringing the Palestinians close to having their own state. But with the assassination of Yitzak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister, in 1995 and the election of a right-wing government opposed to Oslo the next year, the peace process is foundering.

It was in the last three months of last year that Washington began to pay for a policy of over-confident neglect since the Gulf war. Saddam felt strong enough to challenge the UN inspectors. Russia, France and China were more critical of American and British control of UN Security Council policy towards Iraq.

Air strikes may not change the dilemma over UN inspections which allow Saddam Hussein to stage crises whenever he wants. It might be better to rely on the more traditional method of dealing with an aggressive state, which is a military alliance to contain it. Despite all the efforts of Washington, the alliance against Baghdad is looking ragged, with Saudi Arabia refusing to allow its airfields to be used for an attack.

No wonder Bill Clinton is so equivocal about ordering the air strikes. He knows how in Vietnam bombing without a precise political and military objective can escalate. The maximalist policy of UN inspectors entering every intelligence or military headquarters in Iraq does not work unless it is backed by the threat of military occupation. Unlike 1991, this is no longer on the cards. Unless he is lucky, President Clinton will have to negotiate. The only open question is whether this happens before or after an air offensive.