Iraq: Stronger Saddam tests US power in the Middle East

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The Independent Online
Iraq and the UN have backed away from immediate confrontation over the American members of the UN strategic weapons monitoring team. But the longer-term indications are gloomy.

Our correspondent reports on the latest bout between Iraq and the US and asks if the status quo in the Middle East since the end of the Gulf war is beginning to collapse.

We have been here before. Confrontation between President Saddam Hussein and the outside world has become a ritual with familiar props: the declaration of defiance by the Iraqi leader, US threats of military action, manoeuvrings at the UN, the arrival of breathless CNN correspondents in Baghdad.

Why has President Saddam chosen this moment for a confrontation? The immediate reason was probably Iraq's hope of a split in the United Nations Security Council, with Russia, France and China unwilling to maintain economic sanctions forever. They did not go along with the United States and UK in wanting to impose travel restrictions on Iraq officials in retaliation for Iraqi harassment of the UN Special Commission (Unscom) on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

But there is more to it than this. For seven years Iraq has been under economic siege. Politically, as Tony Lake, the former US National Security Adviser said, the US "has Saddam Hussein in a box". Does he now think he can break out? The answer to the question is important because American domination of the Middle East dates from its victory in the Gulf war in 1991 and the political isolation of Iraq.

Iraq accuses the US, wholly supported by the UK, of using the work of Unscom as an excuse to maintain sanctions. The US and its allies - and so far it has carried the UN Security Council with it - say that Iraq is still concealing the remains of its nuclear, biological and chemical warfare programmes along with some missiles to deliver warheads.

Both are right. Washington wants to keep Iraq weak. It would like to replace Saddam Hussein, but by a coup not a revolution. It does not want Iraq to break up, with the majority Iraqi Shia community siding with Iran and the Iraqi Kurds seeking independence. It is useful to have President Saddam as a bogeyman to keep Saudi Arabia and Kuwait firmly allied to the US.

But there is also no doubt that Iraq has tried to hide as much of its strategic weapons arsenal as possible. In 1995, 130 gyroscopes and guidance systems taken from old Soviet SS-18 missiles were intercepted at Amman airport on their way to Baghdad. Iraq had paid $2m for them and their only possible purpose is to guide long-range missiles.

The numbers of such weapons is unlikely to be large. Toxins like anthrax are not a weapon of mass destruction in the same sense as a nuclear device. Iraq successfully fired al-Hussein Scud missiles at Saudi Arabia and Israel in the Gulf war without benefit to itself. It did not dare use the chemical and nerve gases it had in storage during the war because of fear of retaliation.

It is irrational for the Iraqi leader to fight so hard to retain these weapons, since they provide such a handy excuse for the US to maintain sanctions. The explanation is probably simple megalomania and a desire to show 20 million Iraqis and the rest of the world that he cannot be pushed around.

His past behaviour proves that Saddam Hussein has a good, if brutal, understanding of Iraqi politics. It is the international reaction to his moves that he misjudges, as when he invaded Iran in 1980 and Kuwait in 1990.

President Saddam's willingness to stage a confrontation now also probably reflects confidence that his strength is growing. He is in a stronger position at home than five years ago. Last year he successfully intervened with his tanks in Iraqi Kurdistan and US planes did not attack him. The Iraqi opposition had to flee the Kurdish mountains. A plot for a military coup in Baghdad backed by the CIA collapsed. The family feuding which led to the defection, return and execution of General Hussein Kamel, his son-in-law, has died down for the moment.

The US position is a little weaker than it was in the Middle East. It has failed to push Israel to reach an agreement with the Palestinians. The Oslo accords are in tatters. The Arab world is angry but impotent. Western Europe does not support American economic sanctions against Iran.

But the US will fight hard to keep its dominance in the Middle East. This means maintaining the status quo of 1991 and the embargo on Iraq. The rest of the world may be suffering from "sanctions fatigue" - but not Washington. And neither France, Russia nor China wants to confront the US on this issue. The latest crisis over weapons inspection show that President Saddam thinks he has a better chance than before of breaking the siege of his country, but he still has a long way to go.