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Clinton won't let Saddam off the hook: The Iraqi opposition wants more American help. Charles Richards reports

WHEN the US Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, meets Iraqi opposition figures in Washington tomorrow, he will be giving two main signals. He will be visibly demonstrating a continuity of US policy begun by his predecessor James Baker in supporting the Iraqi National Congress as the main umbrella grouping of Iraqi Sunni, Shia and Kurdish opposition to the Iraqi regime. And he will be showing that, despite all the fears that President Bill Clinton was trying to depersonalise what became almost a vendetta by George Bush against Saddam Hussein, the focus of the new administration's policy remains the same: containment of the Iraqi dictator.

The Iraqis, particularly the Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani, will want more than a symbolic gesture. They would like greater US commitment to protecting the Kurds in northern Iraq, or some declaration on the establishment on a war crimes tribunal.

A newspaper interview at the time of the presidential inauguration had advocates of a strong line against President Saddam foaming. Asked whether he saw any possibility of doing business with Iraq if Saddam Hussein changed his tune, the Baptist Mr Clinton said he believed in death- bed conversions. Subsequently aides were quick to deny that Mr Clinton was prepared to normalise relations with the Iraqi President. But the damage was done. 'It was certainly perceived in the region as something of an acquiescence,' said Richard Haass, Mr Bush's chief policy adviser on Iraq at the National Security Council and now at the Carnegie Endowment. For it showed the US was prepared to settle down to the longer-term issue of containing Saddam Hussein.

Any discussion of the foreign policy of the Clinton administration must be tempered by one salient factor: it is the declared aim of the new president to devote his energies to domestic issues, not foreign affairs.

That said, Mr Clinton inherited a policy towards the Gulf which has been modified more in presentation than in substance. Mr Clinton cannot be seen to be weaker than his predecessor in confronting Saddam Hussein. But, rather than beat the drums of war against Saddam Hussein, he would rather that the Iraqi President simply rotted.

US policy towards the two countries considered potentially most destabilising in the Gulf, Iraq and Iran, is one of dual containment. US policymakers see both as potential threats to US interests and to the interests of its friends in the region. These are not only the Gulf Co-operation states, but also Egypt, Turkey and Israel.

Officials feel Iraq has been effectively marginalised: unable to export oil, to import weapons, with parts of the country beyond government writ, and in economic difficulties, it is hardly the military power it was. The US has several tools with which to pen in Iraq. First, the US insists on Iraqi compliance with all UN Security Council resolutions, including those calling on Iraq to recognise Kuwaiti sovereignty, to get rid of its weapons of mass destruction, and not to repress its civilian population. No- fly zones - US jets were in action earlier this month - and UN inspection teams help enforce those resolutions.

Policymakers know that Saddam Hussein cannot possibly comply with the tough resolutions and still remain Saddam Hussein. Hence their avowal that the confrontation has not been depersonalised. The target is still his regime, which is subject to a rigorous ring of sanctions.

The message from the administration in response to the so-called charm offensive by President Saddam after Mr Clinton took office was not normalisation of relations.

At the same time, the administration has given up on any hope they might have had of toppling the Iraqi leader in the short term. Mr Haass insists that the US was never itself seeking to remove Saddam Hussein but 'to create a context or an environment' for internal opposition forces to act. Officials conceded they do not have any clear idea who might remove Saddam Hussein.

The Americans calculate that once the Iraqis find from these signals that Mr Clinton is not the soft touch they expected, they will challenge Washington in more direct ways.

The most likely matter of confrontation will be Iraqi Kurdistan, in the north. The Kurds there have lived with an uneasy and fragile autonomy for the past two years.

The status quo is tenable on condition the US does not ease its support for the haven, and if President Saddam does not escalate repression within his area of influence. US officials insist their response will be to use whatever force is required with a reasonable series of demonstrations of firm resolve. In short, Mr Clinton is not backing down.