US 'to protect Shia' against Iraqi attack

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The Independent Online
THE United States has told the Iraqi opposition that it is prepared to offer protection to Shia areas under air or ground attack by the Iraqi armed forces. A high-level delegation of Iraqi opponents of Saddam Hussein, which met senior US officials at the weekend, said they were told the US was prepared to act against Iraqi military units and aircraft attacking the Shia living in the marshes in the far south of Iraq, where the Tigris and Euphrates meet.

Laith Kubba, a member of the delegation, said: 'The intention is to prevent the Iraqi army from further aggression.' Recently the army has stepped up attacks, using helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft, on the villages and settlements of the Marsh Arabs and is also demanding they move to government-controlled areas.

US officials also indicated in talks in Washington that they wanted the leadership of the Iraqi Shia to be less reliant on Iranian support. During the uprisings in Iraq after the Gulf war the US and Saudi Arabia were both hesitant in supporting Shia rebels because they saw them as controlled or heavily influenced by Tehran.

During the recent crisis in Baghdad - over the Iraqi government's refusal to allow United Nations inspectors to enter the Ministry of Agriculture in Baghdad to look for evidence of weapons of mass destruction - George Bush and his advisers showed reluctance to renew air attacks against Iraqi targets. Senior officials argued that these would not necessarily make President Saddam more compliant towards UN inspections. They would also have reminded the US electorate that he was still in power.

The advantage of confronting President Saddam over the Marsh Arabs is that, from the US point of view, it is an achievable aim using limited means. Three aircraft-carriers are in or on their way to the Middle East. Action also would rebut claims by the Democratic presidential candidates, Bill Clinton and Al Gore, that the administration had abandoned the Iraqi Shia and Kurds to the mercies of President Saddam.

Mr Kubba said the US had evidently concluded that the periodic confrontations between UN inspectors and the Iraqi authorities had worked to President Saddam's advantage. It had given him the initiative, since he could decide when, where and for how long such incidents would occur.

Neither does he believe that President Saddam would pursue his offensive against the Shia of the marshes in the face of an ultimatum. He said: 'There might be one incident, but Saddam would not risk a confrontation on this.' Although the rebels in the south are an irritation to Baghdad, they pose no threat to the regime.

It is not clear if the US will wait for the Iraqi offensive to be resumed before issuing an ultimatum. Mohammed Baqr al-Hakim, a leading Iraqi Shia, is in Iran, explaining the switch in US and Saudi policy. But the US has made clear it wants no dealings with al-Dawa, the Iranian-backed group responsible for guerrilla attacks in Iraq during the 1980s.

US, British and French aircraft already overfly northern Kurdistan to prevent an Iraqi military offensive. During the Washington talks the Kurdish leaders, Masoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani, said that if Kurdistan were to become a centre for opponents of the Iraqi government, the Kurds would want increased protection from the US. The US Secretary of State, James Baker, said the ability of the US to protect the Kurds was very dependent on the attitude of Turkey.

(Photograph omitted)