Different tactics same strategy: Helping the Shias does not alter the aim of undermining Saddam, says Charles Richards, Middle East Editor

LAST YEAR, the United States-led coalition would not support the Shia uprising in southern Iraq against Saddam Hussein. Today, the same coalition is invoking United Nations resolutions to protect Shias hiding in the marshes from President Saddam's army and air force.

A 180-degree shift in policy? No. The grand strategy is the same: to overthrow the Iraqi leader. So, too, are the constraints. The US administration does not wish to cause a break-up of the country along ethnic or religious lines into Kurdish (north), Sunni (centre) and Shia (south).

And the favoured method, too, is the same: through a palace coup of discontented military men rather than a popular uprising that could divide the country. One difference is that for six months after the end of the Gulf war, the US administration and its various parts did not devise a carefully thought out policy towards Iraq.

Since March 1991 helicopter gunships have been used to suppress rebellions in both the north and the south. Then, after Iranian aircraft raided a base on Iraqi territory used by anti-Iranian dissidents in April this year, the coalition decided to turn a blind eye to the flight of Iraqi aircraft to defend against any other attacks.

Thus have the Iraqis managed to push forward the bounds of the permissible. According to a Ministry of Defence briefing last month, some 150 of the Iraqi air force's fighters and warplanes are flying.

However Pete Williams, the US Defense Department spokesman, has in the past said that the ceasefire arrangements have been superseded by UN Security Council resolutions.

Evidence of brutal repression comes not only from the Iraqi opposition and the Iranians, but also from the UN's own report.

At the end of July, the then US secretary of state, James Baker, and the National Security Adviser, Brent Scowcroft, met Iraqi dissident leaders for the first time to tell them they would protect the populations in the south and north. The US and its coalition partners insist they have the legal mandate for action, although the resolution does not of itself authorise clobbering the Iraqi air force. They also have the political will, both at home and abroad. And in military terms, the knocking-out of the Iraqi air force provides the kind of target that armed forces chiefs like. It would weaken Iraq's armed forces and serve Washington's aim of seeking to turn more senior officers against President Saddam.

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