Baghdad's diplomacy harks back to 1990

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THE STATEMENT by Iraq's ambassador to the United Nations yesterday that his country's troops were moving away from the southern city of Basra was reminiscent of Baghdad's diplomacy between the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 and the opening of the allied air campaign on 17 January 1991.

'The Iraqi government has decided to move these troops from the Basra area to another location,' said the envoy, Nizar Hamdoon. But he added: 'We reserve the right to move them at any time in the future to wherever we want within Iraqi territory.'

Mr Hamdoon's language, which omitted any mention of Kuwait, and his qualification both indicated that Iraq did not wish its response to the UN Security Council to be represented as a climbdown. But it may prove as difficult in 1994 as it was in 1990-91 to satisfy simultaneously the political requirements of both the Iraqi regime and the US administration.

Any redeployment of Iraqi units would be hard to define. Shortly after the 1990 invasion of Kuwait, a withdrawal was announced and partly carried out. When the coalition forces opened a land offensive on 24 February 1991, Iraqi commanders ordered their troops to withdraw northwards in the

forlorn hope that they might evade attack. The first withdrawal proved a sham, the second was too late.

Such are the lessons that will be reflected on in Washington and London before either deviates from its response to the Iraqi troop movements. Undeniably, however, the Iraqi government has achieved part of its objective - awakening international opinion to the depths of its concern that UN sanctions should be lifted. Despite months of assiduous diplomacy, Iraq has failed to set Russia and France openly against Britain and the US on the issue.

Yet both the Iraqis and the Western allies are likely to find that they are operating in a very different landscape from the Middle East of 1990. The Gulf war and its aftermath in the Madrid peace conference of 1991 transformed regional politics - and the effects were visible yesterday.

From the Iraqi point of view, the picture is bleak. In 1990 it could count on a fervent response from the PLO, logistical help from Jordan and a chorus of sympathy from radical states in the Arab world. Today the PLO is enmeshed in its peace process with Israel and the Palestinian issue may yet recede from the forefront of Arab consciousness.

In Amman, too, the climate has changed. King Hussein of Jordan yesterday issued a public warning to Iraq not to 'repeat the mistakes' of four years ago. Among the radicals, Yemen is submerged in the debris of civil war while Libya yesterday uttered supportive but impotent noises. Syria fought against Iraq in 1991, would remain hostile to the Saddam Hussein regime and may itself be on the threshold of a deal with Israel brokered by the US Secretary of State, Warren Christopher.

As if to symbolise the new climate, Israel and a group of Arab states were meeting in Paris yesterday to discuss arms control and military stability in the Middle East, apparently undisturbed by events on the Iraq-Kuwait border. But it would be tempting fate for the US and its allies to write off the Iraqi regime as an anachronism whose lifespan is likely to be short. Nor could the coalition of 1990-91 be easily reassembled.

That reality was underlined by the Turkish Defence Minister, Mehmet Golhan, who said his country would find it 'difficult' to permit air strikes against Iraq from its territory. British, French and US aircraft operated from the Nato base at Incirlik during the war and still fly missions over Kurdish safe havens of northern Iraq. But the new Turkish Foreign Minister, Mumtaz Soysal, has expressed sympathy for Baghdad and the mandate for the allied operation may face opposition when it falls due for renewal by the Ankara parliament in December.

More worrying for the US is the long-term question mark over its friends in the area. Egypt faces a fundamentalist insurrection. The Gulf states still feel nervous about Iran. And large-scale arms transfers to Saudi Arabia have failed to increase its stability, while recession and religious zealotry have combined to generate opposition to the royal family. Any new conflict could thus bring consequences as unpalatable to Washington as to Baghdad.

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