Iraq: Baghdad claims victory in battle of nerves with US

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The Independent Online
Saddam Hussein has achieved most of his aims in his confrontation with the UN. Patrick Cockburn says that Iraq believes it is seeing the beginning of the end of its political and economic isolation.

For six years American policy towards Iraq was, as Tony Lake, former US National Security Adviser, put it: "To keep Saddam in his box." The way in which the crisis over the UN Special Commission (Unscom) inspectors overseeing the destruction of Iraq's strategic weapons is ending, shows that the Iraqi leader is getting out of his box.

Only at the most superficial level has Iraq climbed down over the expulsion of the UN members of the inspection team. Saad Qasim Hammoudi, head of Arab and International Committee at the Iraqi parliament, said in Baghdad yesterday that Iraq agreed to the return of the inspectors on condition that Russia would guarantee a series of measures.

He said they included "reviewing a balanced representation [of UN Security Council's members] in the UN Special Commission and suspending the inspection of presidential sites and the flights of the [American-operated UN] U- 2 plane." The ruling Revolution Comman Council had earlier confirmed that the inspectors, including Americans, could return as early as yesterday.

The return of the American inspectors may mask from US opinion the significance of Washington's losses in the crisis. "Iraq has succeeded in changing the rules of engagement," says Laith Kubba, an Iraqi opposition intellectual. "It has realised it has a strong card in suspending the inspection team which it can do again."

Other important gains from Baghdad's point of view include the return of Moscow as a power in the Middle East. Its influence has been limited in the region since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Now the successful mediation by Yevgeny Primakov, Russia's Foreign Minister, has made Russia a player again. "The Americans must have been desperate to allow the Russians back in," Mr Kubba says. Nor is this a one-off development. Moscow was already signalling its renewed strength in the Middle East earlier this year when it rebuffed US and Israeli demands that it stop helping Iran develop a new missile.

The crisis also underlined the divisions in the UN Security Council over what to do about Iraq. Despite the show of unity at Geneva these turned out to be deep, with the US and Britain standing alone. The visit to the Gulf of Madeleine Albright, the US Secretary of State, which was meant to rally support among Arab states which had opposed Iraq in the Gulf War, had the opposite effect. Even Kuwait, the victim of invasion in 1990, opposed the use of force against Iraq.

For all the heavily publicised build-up of US and British military force in the Gulf over the last month, the effective military options open to the US were limited. It could attack installations in Iraq suspected of housing materials relating to strategic weapons. But, unlike the Gulf war, when the aim was to free Kuwait, the objective was no longer clear.

Significant also for Baghdad will have been the signs of division in the US administration. When an official close to Mrs Albright said the US might offer a "little carrot" to get Baghdad to resume co-operation with Unscom, William Cohen, the Defense Secretary, denied it. Finally, the White House said it would consider relaxing sanctions on Iraqi oil sales if Iraq complied with inspections, and also signalled US flexibility on the composition of inspection teams.

There was also uncertainty in Washington about Russian mediation. At a news briefing on Tuesday, Sandy Berger, the National Security Adviser, played down the proposal, saying it was doubtful Mrs Albright would be in Geneva. Hours later she cut short a visit to India to go to the meeting.