Leading Article: A change of heart

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THE OUTCOME of yesterday's emergency Cabinet meeting was, for Bosnia, a modest but potentially significant reversal of previous policy. The decision to commit a battalion of British troops, and some air cover if required, to the protection of humanitarian aid convoys matched a similar French move last week. Even so, better a late commitment than none at all. On the new plan for an air exclusion zone above southern Iraq, it is President Bush who has made the running. There cannot be many people who do not detect a connection between Mr Bush's new protectiveness towards the persecuted Shias of southern Iraq and this week's Republican convention in Houston. British support is scarcely unexpected.

It is hard not to feel cynical both about the timing of the seemingly imminent new allied ultimatum to President Saddam and about the double standards being applied in Iraq and Bosnia. After all, the suppression of the Shias in the south of Iraq has been going on without interruption since the allies failed to support their revolt in the aftermath of the Gulf war. The aerial and artillery assaults on the Marsh Arabs, among whom some Shias have been sheltering, have been stepped up in recent weeks. Nothing has happened in the past few days, apart from the Republican convention and the Security Council's resolution on Bosnia, to make the imposition of an air exclusion zone over southern Iraq a better idea now than it was several weeks ago.

Such a no-go area for Iraqi military aircraft should have been put into effect from the end of the Gulf war. But the Americans (and the Saudis) feared that to support the Shias might promote the break-up of Iraq into three parts: Kurds in the North, Sunnis in the middle and Shias in the South. The Shias were seen as potential allies of the Iranians, whose expansionism the Americans view as a long-term threat to Western interests in the region. In other words, Mr Bush has remained bent on President Saddam's overthrow, but is not prepared to support those most likely to accomplish it. The Saudis' attitude to the fracturing of Iraq is said to be changing. Perhaps Mr Bush's will, too.

If the Shia Muslims and Marsh Arabs of southern Iraq deserve protection, what about the Slav Muslims of Bosnia? Should the Serbs and Croats be allowed to continue burning their homes and bombarding their cities? It is true that the parallels are inexact: the guilty and the innocent are much more clearly demarcated in Iraq than in Bosnia, intervention far more dangerous in Bosnia. But there is a real danger that if the policy of 'ethnic cleansing' is carried through to its conclusion, the Muslims will become the Palestinians of the Balkans: homeless, unwanted and bitter. A year ago they formed 44 per cent of Bosnia's population. Yet the Serbs, with 31 per cent of the people, now reportedly control 70 per cent of its territory, the Croats most of the rest.

Bosnia may be finished as an ethnically mixed unitary state. But the territorial gains of the Serbs and Croats cannot be allowed to stand. The Muslims must have their own autonomous areas. Meanwhile they must be sustained with humanitarian aid and protected from further bombardment. Mr Major will have failed a key test of his leadership if he does not build on today's commitment at next week's London peace conference.