The Baghdad riddle: How the main Western powers have managed to make a mess over their policy towards Iraq

Policing Saddam
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One consideration has always been paramount in America's relations with Saddam Hussein's Iraq - oil. Washington's basic goal has been to prevent one country (in practice Iran or Iraq) gaining control of Middle Eastern energy.

Hence Washington's quiet support for Saddam when Iran gained the upper hand during the 1980-1988 Gulf war. Hence Washington's despatch of 500,000 troops to drive Saddam from Kuwait in 1991, and prevent him from striking south to Saudi Arabia. US reaction to Saddam's latest incursion merely proves the point. The reprisals have been in the south, doing nothing for the Kurds but making it harder for Iraq to attack the Arabian peninsula.

The doctrine of "dual containment" of Iraq and Iran has paradoxical consequences. The last thing the US wants is the dismemberment of Iraq and an independent Kurdistan. Washington's dream is for Saddam to be killed and replaced by a strong figure capable of holding the country together.

Britain invented Iraq. After the First World War, London and Paris carved up the former Turkish empire in the Middle East and Iraq became a kingdom administered by Britain under a mandate from the League of Nations. Washington had promised an independent Kurdistan but this was frustrated by London. The Mosul oil wells were in Kurdish territory and Britain wanted to place them under Iraqi (ie British) control). When the Kurdish tribes revolted in the 1920s, the RAF bombed them.

Britain's direct role ended with the overthrow of the Hashemite dynasty - and expulsion of British administrators - in 1958. Fear of the Iranian mullahs led Margaret Thatcher's government to flout its own rules on arms shipments and covertly back Saddam in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war.

During the 1990-1 Gulf crisis Britain became an enthusiastic member of the US-assembled alliance against Saddam. John Major's government was the most whole-hearted backer of this week's US air raids.

There are plenty of reasons why Moscow is up in arms about the assault on Iraq, not least of which is big money. Russia is desperate to get its hands on $7bn (pounds 4.6bn) owed by Baghdad, but has no hope of doing so while sanctions remain in force. Russian companies hoped to cash in on joint ventures in Iraq's oil fields once the UN sanctions were lifted, and were jockeying for business. Last year Russia signed a contract to develop Iraq's gas and oil fields, but, under pressure from the US, the Kremlin agreed not to go ahead with the deal while sanctions were in force.

But the relationship with Iraq dates back to Soviet times when Moscow was keen to counterbalance US influence in the Arab world. Some of Iraq's major industries were developed with the help of Soviet expertise.

By cosying up to the bad boys - Iran and Iraq - Russia is doing what it can to challenge the global supremacy of the US, restoring a small part of the bargaining power that it lost when the Soviet Union fell apart.

France has long cultivated both diplomatic and commercial relations with Iraq, which it regarded, at least until the invasion of Kuwait, as a friend in the region. It has lucrative arms contracts dating from the Seventies. French technical and financial assistance helped Iraq to build the Osirak nuclear reactor near Baghdad which was destroyed by Israel in 1981.

France was the first member of the Western alliance to restore diplomatic relations with Iraq after the Gulf war. The election last year of President Jacques Chirac, committed to raising France's profile in traditional areas of French influence, including the Middle East, gave the incipient reopening towards Iraq a further push.

France considers that it "understands" Arab countries in a way English- speaking countries, particularly the US, do not and has been keen to counter what it sees as Washington's monopoly of influence in the Middle East. A delegation of French businessmen, supported by ministerial officials, visited Iraq in April.