Brinkmanship in Baghdad: Patrick Cockburn looks behind the war of words between the United Nations and Iraq that threatens to reopen the Gulf conflict

BEFORE the start of the Gulf war in January 1991, the policy planning section of the Foreign Office proposed that the allies should change their objective in the event of war from the reconquest of Kuwait to the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the Independent on Sunday has learned.

A principal objection to the plan on the British side came from the British ambassadors to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the lower Gulf, who argued that the main British interest in the Arabian peninsula was stability of oil supplies. This was guaranteed by the preservation of the political status quo in the region whereby the oil states were ruled by kings, sultans and emirs.

If, they said, the objectives of the war were expanded and the allied forces captured Baghdad and overthrew President Saddam, Western leaders would have to call Iraqi elections within six months. The emergence of a democracy in Baghdad might not only break up Iraq into Sunni, Shia and Kurdish enclaves, but it would immediately destabilise the monarchies to the south.

By achieving total military victory over Iraq the allies therefore risked destroying the very political status quo whose preservation was their chief war aim.

The policy planning paper never stood much chance of acceptance. President George Bush and the Pentagon, remembering American intervention in Korea, Vietnam and Lebanon, were keen to limit the war to the reconquest of Kuwait. More ambitious objectives might suck the US into permanent involvement in Iraq.

Ideally the US and Britain would have liked to see the war end with the Iraqi army so badly defeated that President Saddam would have fallen without any further action by the allies.

The key miscalculation was the speed with which the ground war ended. In 100 hours of fighting the Iraqi army was pushed out of Kuwait, but not destroyed. Within a month most of its divisions had been reconstituted.

Even when the allies realised that President Saddam had survived they had an impressive array of pressures that could be used against him. In the north there was the Kurdish enclave protected by allied aircraft. Economic sanctions had been maintained since immediately after the invasion of Kuwait. Iraq had not been able to export oil and it had no other source of hard currency. The Iraqis had also agreed to the presence of UN humanitarian teams and guards on its soil.

It was the UN inspection teams, based in the centre of Baghdad, that were the sharp point of the continuing allied effort to pressurise and isolate Iraq and underline its defeat in the war. In charge of finding and destroying nuclear, chemical and biological weapons as well as ballistic missiles, their daily activities were designed to show how Iraq's sovereignty had been limited. 'It is like being under a foreign mandate,' said one Iraqi, watching the UN's white-painted vehicles drive through central Baghdad.

At first the intrusive inspections were successful. Evidence of a wide-ranging Iraqi plan to build a nuclear device was unearthed. Factories and other facilities were destroyed. There also began a series of tests of strength in which the Iraqis would resist inspection, the UN would threaten military retribution and there would be the makings of a new crisis until Baghdad backed down.

It was never quite clear who was the winner in these confrontations. At first the UN appeared to come out ahead. There were identifiable plants and military camps that could be blown up by the UN's demolition teams, producing satisfactory pictures on TV. Exactly a year ago one stand-off between the Iraqi government and the UN led inhabitants of Baghdad to expect new raids. Anti-aircraft gunners were back on the roofs of Baghdad's taller buildings.

In some respects the crisis over the past week, which grew from the Iraqi government's refusal to allow the UN inspection team to search the Agriculture Ministry, looks like a re-run of earlier confrontations. But there are key differences, which put President Saddam in a stronger position than before. The UN inspectors want to determine whether any documents in the building might be of use to the UN special commission set up to search out and destroy Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. When the UN inspectors were frustrated last year in getting into a suspected weapons plant, they could threaten to have it destroyed from the air. Today there is not much point in bombing the Agriculture Ministry since this would destroy the very documents the UN wants to see.

Not that too much reliance can be placed in the UN's intelligence on Iraqi weapons. The first attempt to enter the Agriculture Ministry on 4 July was led by Major Karen Jansen of the US Army heading a team of 16 UN inspectors. Denied entry by the Iraqis, on the grounds that access to the ministry would infringe Iraq's sovereignty, the inspectors maintained a vigil outside the building for 17 days until withdrawing in the face of Iraqi demonstrations.

But confidence in Major Jansen's methods of obtaining accurate information about Iraqi military sites was undermined by the revelation that last year, before leaving for Baghdad, she consulted a psychic based in Maryland in order to make use of his extra-sensory powers to locate Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. Edward Dames, president of a company called Psi Tech, says Major Jansen told him about suspected biological warfare sites she was planning to visit in Iraq, what she was looking for and asked if he could help. 'I told her, sure,' said Mr Dames, himself a retired military intelligence officer, and he proceeded to 'find' and sketch two locations. He also waived the dollars 6,000 (pounds 3,150) to dollars 8,000 bill he normally charges corporate clients.

US intelligence has always had an interest in the possibilities of psychic or extra-sensory powers. The chairman of Psi Tech is Albert Stubblebine, a retired major general who was head of army intelligence in the early 1980s, where his efforts to develop psychic intelligence gained him the nickname 'Spoonbender'.

(Photograph omitted)

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