The West's fantasy firepower

We have the military and technical might to deal with Saddam Hussein, but without the political will does international peacekeeping make sense, asks Patrick Cockburn
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The Independent Online
From the ground an incoming Tomahawk missile looks like a sinister black torpedo as it skims towards its target 500 feet above the ground. During the Gulf war its highly publicised ability to strike its target accurately from long distances made it a symbol of American military superiority over Iraq.

Five years on, the 27 Cruise and Tomahawk missiles fired on the orders of President Clinton yesterday at military targets in southern Iraq are more an expression of frustration and impotence. Nobody expects that they will accomplish much in reversing the impact of the takeover of Arbil, the Kurdish capital, by Saddam Hussein's newly acquired Kurdish allies backed by Iraqi tanks.

At first sight the Iraqi leader appears to have succeeded in doing what he signally failed to do when he invaded Kuwait in 1990. By withdrawing his troops rapidly he has robbed the US and its allies of a clear military and political target against which they can retaliate.

In the longer term Saddam Hussein's move may not be quite so astute. As in the past he has probably overplayed his hand. He has reasserted Iraqi authority in parts of Kurdistan, but at the cost of delaying the oil-for-food plan agreed by the UN Security Council. Before the incursion into Arbil, Iraq was expecting to sell 600,000 barrels of oil a day from later this month.

President Clinton is also damaged because the Iraqi attack gives international publicity to what has been evident in the Middle East for many months: that the Gulf war settlement is looking very ragged. This is not surprising. The vacuum of power that opened up when Iraqi Kurds set up a quasi-state in 1991 was always going to suck in Iran, Turkey and the Kurds' old masters in Baghdad.

Yet the US has done little in the past four years except try to freeze the situation in Iraq as it was after Saddam Hussein's defeat in Kuwait. The Kurds were not allowed to set up their own state. Members of the Foreign Office always refer to "northern Iraq", not Kurdistan. The "safe haven" for Kurds that emerged in 1991 was designed to be militarily and politically feeble, but was also supposed to be strong enough to resist pressure from Iraq and Iran.

Kurdish tribalism and warlordism is in part responsible for the civil war that started two years ago. But Massoud Barzani of the Kurdish Democratic Party and Jalal al Talabani of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the Kurdish leaders whose divisions led to renewed Iraqi intervention, were given an impossible hand to play. It was always likely that they would look for outside allies in Tehran, Baghdad and Washington to make up for their own lack of strength. President Clinton might have avoided the return of Iraqi troops to Kurdistan if he had protested more vigorously against the invasion of northern Iraq by the Turkish army last year.

The problem for the US is that the situation in Iraq and the Middle East at the end of the Gulf war suited it all too well. Iraq was weakened, but still posed enough of a threat to justify the American security protectorate over Saudi Arabia and the Gulf oil states. There is no doubt that Washington would like to get rid of Saddam Hussein, but it has always wanted to do so in a way which does not benefit Iran. This means preserving the Iraqi military establishment and avoiding the rise of a regime dependent on Iraqi Shia Muslims, who make up a majority of the population.

The Gulf conflict was a very conservative war. It was fought to return the Middle East to the status quo ante before Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. In the weeks before the fighting started, a meeting of senior British officials, including all UK ambassadors from the Gulf, concluded that it would be counter-productive for the West and its local allies to continue on to Baghdad and overthrow Saddam. Their reasoning was that if they occupied Baghdad they would be forced to call elections within six months. These, in turn, would be likely to produce a democratic government dominated by the Shia and possibly sympathetic to Iran. Nothing could be more destabilising to the Sunni Muslim rulers of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain.

President Clinton's difficulty is that the Gulf war was sold as a democratic venture. A regime that flaunts its brutality as much as possible, like that of Saddam Hussein, is not difficult to demonise. This brutality had not prevented the US, Britain and most West European countries from cultivating Iraq during the eight-year Iran-Iraq war. But in the lead-up to the Gulf conflict allied propaganda focused on the undoubted savagery of Iraqi torturers in Kuwait. Once the war was under way, the flight of the Kurds through their snow-covered mountains in the wake of their failed rebellion was flashed onto television screens across the world. Not surprisingly, viewers got the impression that the war was being fought, at least in part, for the sake of Iraqi self-determination. It will be difficult for Washington to stand to one side while Iraqi Kurdistan once again falls under the sway of Baghdad.

A further problem for the Gulf war allies is that their original military victory was oversold. The image of the war presented by the allied military was of clinical efficiency. In the first hours of the allied air attack, missiles and smart bombs were shown smashing into telecommunications towers in Baghdad. Video film was taken by attacking aircraft showing bridges over the Tigris and Euphrates erupting as they were hit. Here was war without civilian casualties.

This was always misleading. Allied claims were exaggerated. Pilots claimed that in the Western Desert of Iraq they had hit 90 Scud launchers that were firing at Israel. An official report, sponsored by the US air force after the war, concluded that the real figure was nil. The pictures which had been shown on video by the attacking aircraft showed that most of the targets destroyed were flatbed trucks or petrol tankers on the road to Jordan driven by Filipinos. Iraq lost more than 2,000 tanks in the war, but when a sample of these were examined by allied experts they concluded that only 10 per cent of these had been destroyed from the air. The rest had simply been abandoned by their crews.

These exaggerated accounts have been criticised in American official reports since the war. The latest, by the Government Accounting Office, revealed that the Stealth bombers had been far less effective than claimed at the time. The author of the report is believed to have spent one year writing it and three years trying to get permission to publish it. Yet the original picture of the war as portrayed by US television in the euphoria of victory has never disappeared. President Clinton had to order the firing of Cruise and Tomahawk missiles yesterday because they are still associated in the minds of the American public with the bloodless victory in the Gulf.

In practice they are likely to be ineffective. The real lesson of the Gulf war was that "smart" weapons work against fixed targets that are clearly identifiable. But in Iraq - and in any other country - these are likely to be in short supply. It is all very well to attack, as President Clinton did in 1993, the military intelligence headquarters. But Iraqi ministries and other institutions have all had alternate headquarters outside Baghdad since the Iran-Iraq war. Without intelligence on the ground, bombing is no more effective than when Britain first tried to bomb the Kurdish tribes into submission under the direction of Arthur "Bomber" Harris in the 1920s.

The attraction of bombing then is the same as the use of missiles now: They minimise casualties to our side. Harris promised that Kurdistan could be policed by using airpower alone. Cruise and Tomahawk missiles have the advantage that there is not even a pilot to be killed or captured. This limits the political danger to any government using them, even when, as in this case, they are unlikely to do anything to intimidate Saddam Hussein.

The danger is, of course, that reality catches up. In the Gulf war an attempt to kill Saddam Hussein in the Amariya shelter in Baghdad led to the deaths of 500 women and children. Israeli officers openly proclaimed at the start of the bombardment of Lebanon earlier this year that Operation Grapes of Wrath was modeled on the Gulf war air offensive. Given the failure of the US Patriot missiles to bring down Iraqi Scuds aimed at Israel, this took a certain amount of self-deception on the part of the Israeli armed forces. But for military and political leaders in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, the idea of a war in which no Israelis died was too attractive to turn down. Only when Israeli shells killed 101 Lebanese refugees at Qana did the rest of the world realise that claims of clinical accuracy were as spurious as ever.

The missile attacks will have no impact on Iraq. Expanding the no-fly zone in southern Iraq is likely to be equally ineffective. The failure of the northern no-fly zone has been demonstrated by the easy Iraqi conquest of Arbil. The Kurdish capital is on flat ground and could never be defended against Iraqi tanks - even if they were not aided by the guerrillas of Mr Barzani's KDP. In the south of Iraq the no-fly zone, imposed in 1992, has always been farcical. It has wholly failed to prevent Saddam Hussein draining the marshes where the Tigris and Euphrates meet and expelling the villagers who live there.

The Gulf war in Iraq and Grapes of Wrath have once again demonstrated the limits of air power as a method of enforcing political control. But this is not to say that Saddam Hussein's lunge into Kurdistan is likely to prove strategically sound from Iraq's point of view. It resembles his invasion of Iran in 1980 and Kuwait in 1990 in that it is too public a humiliation of his enemies. They are bound to respond by delaying, probably for a long time, permission for Iraq to export a limited quantity of oil. The US will put intense pressure on Turkey, which seemed the weakest link in the cordon of hostile states around Iraq, to continue enforcing sanctions.

As with the invasions of Iran and Kuwait, Saddam has made a tactical gain, but at what may be heavy strategic cost. The civil war in Kurdistan is not going to end. Jalal al-Talabani, the leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, is bound to counter-attack. The US will put pressure on Mr Barzani to end his alliance with Baghdad. Saddam Hussein may come to regret his renewed entanglement in Kurdistan, but for reasons that have nothing to do with Cruise or Tomahawk missiles.