US is running out of options on Iraq

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The Independent Online
RICHARD BUTLER, the leader of the UN weapons inspectors in Iraq, looked shaken as he left his first round of talks in Baghdad last week. Tariq Aziz, the Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister, had just accused him of stringing out his inspections, on American instructions, in order to prolong economic sanctions and "strangle the Iraqi people".

It may be the endgame in the confrontation between Iraq and the UN over sanctions and inspections which started immediately after the Gulf War in 1991. In the ceasefire terms, under threat of invasion, Iraq pledged to eliminate its biological, chemical and nuclear programmes. A UN Special Commission (Unscom) was appointed to supervise the destruction of the weapons. Until it certifies they are eliminated, sanctions on Iraq will continue.

Exactly what went on at meetings between Unscom and their Iraqi opposite numbers was a mystery until last week. Both sides were pledged to secrecy. But three days ago Iraqi TV began to show film of the final round of talks between Mr Butler and Tariq Aziz in full. The aim is presumably to make the point to Iraqi viewers that there is no reason for the government to continue negotiations bogged down in such pettifogging.

The discussions are certainly long-winded, alternately chilling or tedious in their subject matter: exactly how many Iraqi warheads were filled with anthrax spores before they were destroyed in 1992? Was a donkey, used in a biological experiment, tethered to a car or not? How many punctures were there in the tyres of an Iraqi convoy taking weapons to destruction pits seven years ago? Mr Butler, an Australian diplomat, chain-smokes nervously throughout, looking as though he can barely restrain himself from springing to his feet to refute Mr Aziz's jibes about him being an American stooge.

By Tuesday morning Mr Butler was back on his plane to New York to brief the Security Council.

In fact, neither side is telling the whole truth. There is evidence Iraq has some weapons of mass destruction hidden. In 1995 it tried to import missile gyroscopes from Russia; this year a US laboratory found traces of VX nerve gas, which Iraq claims it never weaponised, in the remains of a rocket warhead destroyed by Iraq.

But it is also doubtful that these weapons are militarily significant. Even in the Gulf War, when Iraq had a large arsenal of chemical weapons, and the missiles and shells to deliver them, it did not dare use them. The threat of retaliation was too great. When Mr Butler said earlier in the year that Iraq had the means to devastate Tel Aviv, even the Israeli government did not take him too seriously.

The real issue at stake in the talks in Baghdad is the continuation of UN sanctions. These have destroyed the economy; Unicef says 58 per cent of Iraqi children suffer from malnutrition. The priority for the US is to keep Iraq politically and economically isolated. Despite President Clinton's claims about the threat posed by Iraqi weapons, the American embassy in Kuwait, a few miles from the Iraqi border, told its citizens during the last crisis in February that there was no need to obtain gas masks.

For seven years US policy on Iraq was remarkably successful. The UN Security Council largely delegated its Iraq policy to Unscom, then under the skilful guidance of Rolf Ekeus, a Swedish diplomat. While the US would have liked to see an end to Saddam Hussein, its priority was to keep him weakened and contained. It is this policy which is now falling apart. A confrontation has started between Iraq and the US that may continue for the rest of the year.

Iraq, with its ruined economy and 23 million people, is scarcely a true competitor with the world's only superpower, but the crisis over the inspection of the Iraqi leader's palaces, defused in February by Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary General, shows that the American position is not as strong as it looks.

The Gulf War left the US the predominant power in the Middle East, occupying the position held by Britain for 30 years after defeating the Turks in 1918. But like the British before them, the Americans have found it hard to consolidate their authority. This did not really matter in the first four years after the Gulf War - Iraq and Iran were contained and the US seemed to be guiding the Israelis and Palestinians towards a compromised peace - but the American position began to weaken from 1996.

Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli Prime Minister, was assassinated the previous year. Six months later Benjamin Netanyahu, an opponent of the Oslo accords, was elected to replace him. The Arab world felt progressively alienated, which might not have mattered much to Washington, except that the US needed the support of its Arab allies in the Gulf War to keep the pressure on Iraq.

The creation of Unscom, and the acceptance of sanctions by Iraq, came only because of the threat of invasion in 1991. The peace terms accepted were onerous: they kept the country under economic siege. It could not export oil, or import anything apart from food or medicine, without UN permission. On the ground, Baghdad lost control in 1991 of its three northern Kurdish provinces.

This changed in 1996. Saddam Hussein intervened in a Kurdish civil war to send his tanks back into Arbil, the Kurdish capital. President Clinton responded by firing some Tomahawk missiles at southern Iraq, 500 miles away. The US did not want a renewed war with Iraq, however bellicose the statements coming out of Washington.

The unwillingness of the US to go to war was also the underlying theme of the last crisis between Iraq and the US, supported by Britain, which took place from last November to February. But the US found it impossible to win the backing of its Gulf War allies in the Middle East. Madeleine Albright, the Secretary of State, made a number of abortive missions to the Gulf and a vast American fleet was very publicly assembled, but it was unclear what the use of arms would achieve.

Unscom, meanwhile, can only operate if the Iraqis allow it do so, otherwise its inspectors cannot leave their hotels. President Clinton eventually decided that military action created more problems than it solved, and he allowed Kofi Annan to reach a compromise.

Iraq trumpeted its victory. It seemed to be breaking out of its political isolation. But although it received some support from three members of the Security Council - Russia, France and China - sanctions remained in place. On the street in Iraq, initial optimism gave way to cynicism, and the Iraqi dinar sank against the dollar.

We may now be entering the final round. Iraq wants to see a pledge that sanctions will end before it co-operates further on weapons inspection. Since it wants to persuade its friends on the Security Council that it is playing ball on non-conventional weapons, it has allowed UN monitors looking after video cameras and other safeguards at Iraqi facilities to stay, while preventing new inspections.

All the same, Iraq's options are limited. The country is weak, its economy is wrecked, and it is ringed by hostile powers. The main surprise in the last crisis was not Iraqi strength, but American weakness. The US assumed that it could make permanent its predominance of 1991, but this has created increasing resentment in the region, of which the American embassy bombings in East Africa may be one symptom.

While sanctions could be lifted, Washington would insist on continued monitoring and inspection. The problem is that sanctions against Iraq have become a test case for American power in the Middle East. To abandon them now would look like a defeat, which the US is not prepared to accept.