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Iraq gives Washington a soap box

SADDAM HUSSEIN'S brutality against the Marsh Arabs in the south of the country and his regime's continued abuses of Kurds in the north was seized by the United States and its allies yesterday as an opportunity to boost President George Bush's tarnished foreign policy image.

In a well-coordinated effort by Washington's allies, the Security Council set the scene for President Bush to humiliate publicly the Iraqi leader with a warning that further human rights abuses against the Kurds, and in particular the Shia, will not be tolerated.

By switching attention from the confusion of Bosnia to the relatively uncomplicated issue of Iraqi human rights abuses, the Council provided the US with a convenient and timely soap box, to articulate a forceful policy abroad.

The choice on offer to President Saddam is a stark one of readmitting the hundreds of humanitarian aid workers and UN guards who have been forced to abandon their work and leave the country because of threats to their lives and government obstructiveness, or to face the prospect of allied military action to protect the Marsh Arabs.

There are only 225 UN guards left in Iraq, and 120 of them are due to be rotated out next week as their tour of duty ends. But because Iraq has refused to conclude a new agreement with the UN for new guards to be deployed, they are expected to remain, helping to prevent human rights abuses by their very presence.

The UN human rights rapporteur on Iraq, Max van der Stoel, the former Dutch foreign minister, said in an interview yesterday that alarming human rights abuses were taking place in the country and that action was needed. 'I find it really very difficult to swallow the idea that the world would remain passive while there would be some kind of repetition of the 'Anfal Operations' in the north against the Kurds,' he said. These operations, in the late 1980s, saw entire Kurdish villages relocated to barren desert areas.

Mr van der Stoel's findings of grave human rights abuses against the Marsh Arabs and the Kurds have provided the US and its allies with sufficient reason to renew military action against Iraq, diplomatic sources said. The US and Britain are consulting on a new UN resolution to draw attention to the human rights abuses, but diplomats believe that military action can already be justified on the grounds that Iraq has broken the terms of the ceasefire.

Mr van der Stoel gave the Security Council details of what he said was a deliberate policy of targeting the Marsh Arabs who for centuries have made their home under tall reeds in the marshes formed by the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers north of Basra.

Mr van der Stoel said that there was documentary evidence that Iraq was intent on wiping out the Shia Marsh Arab culture. The Baghdad regime considered the Marsh Arabs to be 'inferior and 'un-Iraqi people',' he said.

'The most blatant violations of human rights being perpetrated by the government are constituted by the military attacks against the civilian population,' he said, with 'indiscriminate bombardments of civilian settlements'.