A secret war to save the President's skin

FROM this week, tribesmen herding water buffalo in the marshes of southern Iraq, where the Tigris and Euphrates meet, will be protected from Iraqi air attack by US, British and French planes flying patrols overhead. On 31 August, a new team of UN inspectors arrives in Baghdad to demand entry to Iraqi government buildings to look for evidence of weapons of mass destruction. If entry is refused, as Iraq has said it will be, bombing will start immediately.

The second round of the Iraq crisis, which began when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, is getting under way. It differs from the first round in that its objective is to get rid of President Saddam. And the decision at the end of July to escalate pressure on Iraq was reached primarily in response to President George Bush's re-election difficulties.

This does not mean the present crisis is concocted. The Iraqi Shia Muslims are oppressed and the Marsh Arabs are under assault. The UN search for Iraqi weapons has become a farce. But this had been true for more than six months. The change in US policy during James Baker's last weeks as US secretary of state, before becoming Mr Bush's campaign manager, came chiefly because the White House saw renewed confrontation with Iraq as the key to re-election.

The first public sign of the adoption of a new policy came when a high-level delegation of Iraqi opponents of President Saddam saw Mr Baker and General Brent Scowcroft, the national security adviser, on 30-31 July.

The delegates, who included representatives of Iraq's three main communities - Shias, Sunnis and Kurds - were pleased to find Mr Baker, General Scowcroft and their officials in receptive mood. Not only were they prepared to give guarantees over the existing air umbrella north of the 36th parallel bisecting Kurdistan; they were prepared to offer similar protection to the Shias in the south, where the Iraqi army had been attacking rebels in the marshes.

The Kurdish leaders were fearful of being tempted by the US into adopting a more hostile attitude to Baghdad, and then being abandoned, as they had in 1975 and 1988, to face President Saddam's counter-offensive alone. They might have been more confident of US commitment had they known that, a few days earlier, the Democrats' chief military spokesmen, Sam Nunn and Les Aspin, chairmen of the Senate and House armed services committees respectively, had attended a meeting with Mr Bush at the White House, forging a more militant policy towards President Saddam.

On the morning of 13 August, Mr Bush and General Scowcroft approved a plan whereby the UN inspectors would demand entry to Iraqi ministries, starting with the ministry of military industries. Although the US and British governments stress that UN teams make up their own minds on what to inspect, the inspectors depend on intelligence supplied by the allies, principally the US. Once the UN team leader arrives in Baghdad, he opens a sealed envelope containing the list of places to be investigated.

At the 13 August meeting Mr Bush and General Scowcroft gave the go-ahead for an exclusion zone, whereby allied air patrols would establish a protective umbrella over southern Iraq below the 32nd parallel, halfway between Baghdad and Basra. If allied assent could be obtained by close of business that Friday, the zone would be announced by the following Tuesday. The essentials of both plans had been raised earlier, but what was surprising about the decision was the speed with which it was to be implemented.

The following day, there was a meeting of the so-called Deputies Committee, chaired by Admiral Jonathan Howe, the deputy national security adviser. Operational orders began to go out. Lieutenant-General Michael Nelson, air chief of staff of US Central Command, flew from Shaw air force base in Carolina to Riyadh with 30 air warfare experts.

But the speed of implementation proved to be the administration's undoing. The Turkish government, always nervous of an independent Kurdistan emerging from the break-up of Iraq and influencing its own 12 million Kurds, said its bases could not be used. Above all, the sudden acceleration in the implementation of the plans on UN inspection and the exclusion zone was seen by some officials as geared to the opening of the Republican convention in Houston on Monday.

Last Sunday, Patrick Tyler of the New York Times published a detailed account of the plan for UN inspectors to demand entry to the ministry of military industries the following day. If access was refused it would immediately be bombed. The procedure would be repeated with the Defence Ministry. The most damaging paragraph said: 'One official complained that we are going to stage an incident that relates less to the importance of any document that might be found in the targeted building than the conviction that the steps will provoke a confrontation that will serve as the pretext for military action and 'to help get the President re-elected'.'

Mr Bush was quick to deny he had a political motive, and said there was 'a clear breach of national security'. The Secretary of Defence, Dick Cheney, said it was an 'irresponsible, totally fallacious' story. It was not clear how a story could be at once wholly false and a breach of national security. At first, apparently, the administration wanted the inspection to go ahead next day, reckoning there was enough political support in the US for the action against President Saddam. But neither the allies nor the UN wanted to be seen as political cat's-paws of the White House. The inspection of the ministry was cancelled. In his convention address on Thursday night, Mr Bush played the Gulf war card. He repeatedly accused his Democratic challenger, Bill Clinton, of inexperience in foreign policy and feeble ambivalence in the lead-up to the Gulf war. He also denied he would ever let domestic political considerations influence foreign policy decisions. Yet, according to one official in London, the delay in the announcement of the air exclusion zone last week - which led to reports of a rift between the US and UK - was because the US had asked Britain to wait, so that Mr Bush could make an announcement away from the backdrop of the Houston convention.

So it was left to the British to get the ball rolling last week. After a six-hour meeting at Downing Street, which also considered deploying troops in Bosnia-Herzegovina, John Major said: 'What we have said to the Iraqi authorities is that we are perfectly clear they are engaged in systematic repression of the Shias in the south and that has got to stop.'

The statement reinforced Mr Bush's position that he is responding to President Saddam's defiance rather than adopting a radically different and more combative policy towards Iraq three months before the election. The official explanation for intervention in support of the Shia and Marsh Arabs is that President Saddam has started a new offensive against them. Yet in March last year, when the Iraqi army crushed the rebellion in the Shia cities of southern Iraq, the US allowed it to use helicopters.

The Iraqis were not slow to take advantage of this. An official Iraqi video, later smuggled out of the country, shows Ali Hassan al- Majid, then interior minister, slapping and kicking terrified prisoners outside Nasiriyah in the last days of the rebellion. At one point he can be heard ordering an Iraqi helicopter pilot to attack a bridge held by rebels. He tells the pilot: 'Don't come back until you're able to tell me you've burnt them, and if you haven't burnt them, don't come back.'

In fact, the rebellion in southern Iraq is small, being almost entirely confined to the tribes, numbering about 50,000 people, that inhabit the vast marshes at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates. Poor food, heat, mosquitoes and lack of clean drinking water have prevented any widespread Shia military resistance basing itself there. A UN official in Baghdad said: 'Nobody would set up a political organisation or liberation army in an area with the worst climate in the world.'

The exclusion zone likely to be declared by the Americans this week extends, in any event, far beyond the marshes. One official said this was for 'operational reasons' and the allied patrols in the south would resemble, as far as possible, the exclusion zone over Kurdistan.

But the real reason for the exclusion zone being so close to Baghdad appears to be the desire to foster a new rebellion against President Saddam. In US if not Bristish eyes, it is part of a complex of measures, at best to get rid of him before the November election and, if this does not succeed, to show Mr Bush taking active measures to secure his downfall.

Even supposing Mr Bush and Mr Baker had started the new confrontation with the purest motives, their decision to undertake military operations against Iraq will strongly influence, if not determine, the outcome of of the US election. If it enables Mr Bush to secure only a small measure of the popularity he enjoyed at the end of the last round against President Saddam, he will get his four more years.

(Photograph omitted)

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