Leading Article: Bush and the Iraq factor

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The Independent Online
THE PRIMARY purpose of the 'no-fly' zone imposed yesterday on the southern part of Iraq by the United States, Britain and France is to help President Bush to be re-elected. It may have the incidental benefit of reducing the assaults by President Saddam's army on the Marsh Arabs and Shia rebels in the triangle of land where they are at bay. That is the formal objective of the air exclusion zone. Yet the timing cannot but look opportunistic. The attacks on the Shias have been going on since the crushing of their revolt at the end of the Gulf war; and those against the Marsh Arabs were stepped up this June.

The fact is that Mr Bush felt humiliated by the compromise reached over the UN inspection of the Agriculture ministry in Baghdad last month, which excluded US, British and French inspectors. The American public was thus reminded that President Saddam was still very much alive and cocking a snook at the US. Mr Bush had hoped to announce further action against President Saddam before last week's Republican Party convention. But a leak in the New York Times, in which an official described such plans as politically motivated, made a postponement expedient. It was left to the French and British to appear out of step by announcing the no-fly zone, and their own contributions, first.

Now the convention is over, and the lift it gave Mr Bush's ratings is already sagging. The no-fly zone is a high-risk venture, but it just might enable the Mr Bush to give a display of leadership that transforms his electoral prospects. Such considerations will inevitably shape the coalition's responses to Iraqi military activity within the no-fly zone in the coming months. The allies will, it seems, take 'appropriate action' to prevent breaches of the permanent aerial curfew on Iraqi warplanes and helicopters; yet they will not try to prevent any ground attacks that Baghdad may launch on Shias and Marsh Arabs. Video recordings of these will be taken, for the consideration of the UN Security Council. UN Resolution 688, which calls on Baghdad to stop repressing Iraq's civilian population, is considered strong enough to justify the air exclusion zone but not to cover air strikes against artillery. So far, Mr Bush has said only that he is prepared to take 'additional steps' if the repression continues. It will look pretty feeble if he does not do so. No one expects rules of engagement to be published. But counter-action will also be required if patrolling coalition aircraft are shot down by missiles.

Even though no such clashes have taken place in the northern no-fly zone protecting the Kurds, it would be surprising if President Saddam, already furious at this new humiliation, did not seek to test the allies' resolve in the southern zone. He has amply demonstrated his skill at turning military defeat into political victory. For Mr Bush, the stakes are high. If he fails to respond firmly to any taunts from President Saddam, he will be damaged politically. If military action is taken but seen to achieve nothing, or results in serious American losses of pilots and planes, he may become a political casualty himself. Furthermore, the commitment looks open ended. All in all, and unless President Saddam can somehow be toppled, Mr Bush's new-found concern for the Shias seems unlikely to turn into electoral gold.