Iraq Crisis: US vengeance falls short of its target

When innocent people are killed, the Iraqi regime reaps the benefit.
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The Independent Online
IN the art gallery behind the Meridien Hotel here, there works an old man - "a guest in this life, with perhaps three or four more years to live", he says of himself - who understands what America's threats against Iraq mean in human terms.

On the hot night of 27 June 1993, Abu Khaled said goodnight to the joint director of his gallery, a renowned Iraqi artist called Laila Attar, whose paintings had been exhibited in Kuwait, Cairo and New York. "She left at 9pm, and it was only in the morning that the man who made tea here said: 'Abu Khaled, Madame Attar is in the hospital.' But she was not. I found her daughter and her son in the hospital. But they said she was still under her house."

When Abu Khaled reached the artist's home, in the district of Mansour, he found Laila Attar's husband dead under the rubble. "No one could find her," he said. "But then I saw her long hair between the bricks of the house and I knew she was there. We found her with her handbag still gripped in her hand. She was trying to get away when the missile struck."

It was an American cruise missile launched from a warship in the Gulf, aimed, presumably, at the Iraqi intelligence centre, with its high brick walls and barbed wire, behind the house - and it was fired as part of Washington's response to an alleged assassination plot against ex-president Bush in Kuwait.

The word "alleged" is important, because those accused of the attempted murder had not been judged when the Americans launched the missile. But what shocked Iraqis was President Clinton's reaction at the time to the missile raid on Iraqi targets. Americans, he said, could "feel good" about the operation. He made his comment on his way to church with Hillary.

So, no wonder that last week Baghdad echoed to the night-time hooting of car horns. "Spontaneous" demonstrations are the stuff of dictatorships, but there was a genuine sense of relief throughout the city that another western assault had been averted - and in such a remarkable way.

Saddam Hussein had done something that would have been inconceivable even last year: he transferred Iraq's relationship with the UN from the feisty men of UNSCOM, the arms inspectors, to Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Saddam had secured the UN's acknowledgement that there is a difference between ordinary weapons sites and presidential palaces. And he had received the assurance that the lifting of sanctions - the machinery that has impoverished Iraq - was of "paramount importance" to Mr Annan. In future, well-dressed diplomats will accompany the UNSCOM lads into the presidential palaces.

Saddam himself will have a little more dignity. And the Arab nations - which were so fawning in their admiration after his 1980 invasion of Iran, and so furious in their denunciation after his 1990 invasion of Kuwait - will notice that the Americans, after all their roaring, didn't fire a shot: Baghdad One, Washington Nil. That's not a bad score for a weekend's work.

Laila Mattar's home remains a pile of rubble amid the yellow-painted 1930s villas of Mansour, alongside a fanciful, Japanese-style palace with three armed guards at the gates. But old Abu Khaled remembers her as she appears on a slightly torn poster which he keeps at the back of his gallery. It depicts the artist with the words "massacred by the Americans" beneath her face.

Another woman, a servant in her home, also died (and has, of course, been forgotten). But Abu Khaled's favourite photograph depicts Laila Attar in a long, white dress as she shows Javier Perez de Cuellar around an Iraqi art exhibition in 1988. UN secretary-generals, it seems, do not bestow protection on their friends.