West focuses attention on plight of Iraqi Marsh Arabs

IN THE opening moves of what may develop into another highly charged confrontation between Iraq and the United States, the UN's special humanitarian envoy, Jan Eliasson, will demand full access to Iraq's Marsh Arabs in talks in Baghdad on Monday.

After months of inaction, the US and its allies are focusing international attention on the humanitarian situation in southern Iraq and the government's oppression of the area's Shia population. Some diplomatic sources contend this is to put President Saddam Hussein on the defensive and, if possible, humiliate him before the US presidential election.

Mr Eliasson's visit is aimed at renegotiating a memorandum of understanding with Baghdad that would allow UN guards back into the country in strength to protect food, medicines and UN property. Mr Eliasson is also demanding freedom of access to all parts of Iraq where he believes there to be a humanitarian problem.

If, as many expect, Iraq rebuffs Mr Eliasson in the negotiations next week, he will report to the Security Council that it is not possible to mount a humanitarian operation, leaving it to the US and its allies to make the next move.

Although Mr Eliasson's office is raising some dollars 100m ( pounds 52m) to bring aid to Iraqi Kurds and Shia groups, aid deliveries have been hampered by Iraqi grenade and bomb attacks on the UN guards, and by the government's refusal to renew visas for guards and aid agencies. The relief effort in the south, which has always been weak, has been reduced to a tiny office on the fringe of the marshes in the town of Nasiriyah.

The US, Britain and France have suggested they will intervene directly to halt the repression of the Marsh Arabs, which was described to the Security Council on Tuesday by Max van der Stoel, the special human rights envoy for Iraq. By holding out the prospect of creating a protected zone for the Shia, just as was done for the Kurds last year, the West hopes to intimidate Baghdad into giving the UN humanitarian workers the access they need.

Mr Eliasson's efforts are aimed at providing Iraq with a middle way that will save the lives of thousands of Shia and provide continued protection for the Kurds in the north, without risking the creation of 'safe havens' for the Shia. Any success in getting humanitarian aid flowing again will then be credited to President Bush; his new UN ambassador, Edward Perkins, delivered the most ringing denunciation of President Saddam at the Council meeting on Tuesday.

Mr Perkins said that the repression of Kurdish civilians in 1991 had prompted allied military intervention. The warning to Iraq was implicit - renew the UN humanitarian programme or face possible allied intervention to protect the Marsh Arabs.

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