Divisions emerge among allies over attacking Iraq

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America seems intent on hitting Afghanistan in response to the attacks on its land but there is still disagreement within Washington and between the US and its allies over the next step in any retaliation.

America seems intent on hitting Afghanistan in response to the attacks on its land but there is still disagreement within Washington and between the US and its allies over the next step in any retaliation.

There is speculation that a wave of attacks might be directed against Iraq. Pentagon hawks such as Paul Wolfowitz, the Deputy Secretary of Defence, want to strike Iraq because they believe it was linked to the terrorist attacks. But this idea seems to be opposed by the US State Department, which is seeking to build a diplomatic basis for the present round of assaults.

Senator Jesse Helms, the senior Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said on Saturday he thought the US would hit Iraq. "That depends on two or three things they [the Iraqis] are trying to work out, and I don't think they'll work them out. I think [Iraq] will be a target," he said.

The consensus in the White House seems to have settled on assembling a large force in the region, carrying out a first phase, and then considering what further action to take next. But right-wingers in Washington continue to lobby for an attack on Baghdad. They believe there is evidence of Iraqi involvement, as suspects who died in the hijackings had allegedly met Iraqi agents, and used identities stolen from men killed when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990.

The chief of Israeli military intelligence said in an interview published yesterday that there was no evidence that Iraq was involved. "I don't see a direct link between Iraq and the hijackings and terror attacks in the United States," Major- General Amos Malka, told Israel's Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper. "There is no Iraqi angle or infrastructure that we can point to at this stage."

President Bush gave hints of America's future intentions when he spoke to the US Congress last week. "From this day forward, any nation that continues to harbour or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime," he said. "Americans should not expect one battle, but a lengthy campaign, unlike any other we have seen." Other nations that the US has accused of harbouring terrorists in the past include Sudan, Yemen, Syria and Iran.

Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary, regarded as a hawk, said: "What you will see evolve over the next six, eight, 10, 12 months, probably over a period of years, is a coalition that will not be exactly the same with respect to every activity that the United States or another country might undertake [against] terrorism."

The US Army Secretary, Thomas E White, said the army was ready to conduct "sustained land combat operations." The fact that the US originally decided to call the operation "Infinite Reach" is significant. "It's very hard to draw a finite box around those sets of activities and say, 'We expect it to be completed by date X'," he said.

The British Government philosophy behind recent interventions, including those in Sierra Leone and Macedonia, has been that early, heavy intervention is better than pinprick strikes or trying to make up ground later. But Britain would be unwilling to see an open-ended conflict that could cause greater instability in the Middle East. France, Russia and China would also oppose the US going further; so would regional allies such as Saudi Arabia.

The US will try to strike a balance between a number of objectives. The immediate aim is to seize or kill suspects. The US also wants to ensure that terrorist activity is seriously disrupted in the long term. It wants to punish the Taliban for hosting al-Qa'ida. It wants to show other countries the likely consequences if they do not fall into line with US policy. And it wants to sate the desire for revenge in the US.

But it must get things over quickly. The desire for activity in the US is very strong now, and so is the willingness to accept casualties. That won't last. The winter will descend on Afghanistan by November, and Ramadan will start. Financial markets will be upset by a prolonged campaign. All of these argue for a swift action. Striking Iraq would require a much larger force. If it were to go further than an air war, it would also require support from Saudi Arabia – which may not be immediately forthcoming.

Many Republicans believe Mr Bush's father, who was president during the 1991 Gulf War, should have gone into Iraq against Saddam Hussein. "The first President Bush ought to have gotten rid of him [during the Gulf War]," said Mr Helms. "I say that with all due respect to the former president, but that was one of the major mistakes that was made at that time." Israel is also concerned that Iraq continues to be the biggest threat to security in the region.

Iraq denies any link to the attacks. But it says it fears the US may take the opportunity to strike it again. "Everything is possible," Iraqi Vice-President Taha Yassin Ramadan told reporters on Saturday night. "Yet this is not a new matter to Iraq, which faced ... a more stronger campaign led by the United States 11 years ago."