Why the West needs Saddam: As satellite TV prepares for Gulf War III, Robert Fisk questions the motives behind the crisis

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The Independent Online
FIVE days ago, during an almost unreported visit to Saudi Arabia, the US Treasury Secretary, Lloyd Bentsen, made some very odd remarks to his hosts. He urged them to cut spending to overcome their 'economic problems' brought on by last year's fall in oil prices. Those problems have led the Saudis to delaying debt repayments (by more than a year, according to some leading Western companies). Then there was the little matter of Saudi Arabia's need to pay off the rest of its dollars 21bn bill for the 1991 Gulf War. Of course, Mr Bentsen said, the kingdom's creditworthiness was based on its massive oil reserves.

The consequences for Saudi Arabia of a further fall in oil prices could be severe. But of course that is exactly what would happen if the UN lifted its sanctions on Iraq and allowed Iraqi crude to flow once more. That connection between the outcome of the war, the sanctions, oil prices and the economies of the region is not one made by Mr Bentsen. Yet it is at the heart of what is going on in the region.

That background was ignored by the troops of television correspondents who flocked back to the Gulf last week in the wake of Saddam's military manoeuvres 15 miles north of the Kuwaiti border. The Beast of Baghdad, the Hitler of Iraq - doomed after the near-annihiliation of his armies according to those same reporters in 1991 - had come back to life, ready to threaten a repeat of his aggression of 1990 and invade rich, vulnerable Kuwait.

The satellite news channels CNN and its sisters - whose values, it seems, increasingly shape the Western media - have a familiar routine. They turn to their White House correspondents and Pentagon correspondents and State Department correspondents to faithfully convey the Clinton administration's line on Iraq.

In the run-up to congressional elections, of course, Mr Clinton can 'walk tall' again over Iraq. It is a lot easier to threaten the Iraqi army than to bomb Serbs or rearm Bosnian Muslims or restore democracy in Haiti. America's Gulf Arab allies are also once more marching in step. The US carrier fleet is approaching. CNN, Sky and the other satellite channels are ready to give us Gulf War Part III. Yet none of them questions the morality behind the crisis.

If the satellite news machine employed a minimum of critical faculties, it would have asked what lay behind the satellite pictures so emotionally produced by Madeleine Albright, the US ambassador to the United Nations. True, about 60,000 Iraqi troops were moving around southern Iraq in the aftermath of Saddam's threat to take 'necessary measures' if UN sanctions were not lifted. True, Saddam still refuses to accept the UN-devised Iraqi-Kuwaiti frontier - which gives Kuwait part of Iraq's only Gulf port. And true, of course, Saddam is a very, very cruel man, the sort of dictator we abhor because he keeps a hangman on 24-hour duty for his enemies.

But that, surely, is not what the new Gulf crisis is about. As the media demonises Saddam, we turn a blind eye to the character of our Gulf allies. In Saudi Arabia they chop off the heads of criminals - shooting them in the back of the neck if they are female. Meanwhile, Iraq has met almost all the UN's original demands - that it should dismantle chemical, nuclear and biological weapons of mass destruction. The UN commissioner, Rolf Ekeus, is expected to say as much in New York this week.

No, the troop movements in southern Iraq, like Lloyd Bentsen's expressions of concern about the Saudi Arabian economy, are about UN sanctions and the price of oil. More specifically, the crisis is a product of the oddness - perhaps immorality would be a better word - of America's policy towards Iraq, which is ostensibly designed to use sanctions to starve the Iraqis into overthrowing Saddam but actually ensures that only the people of Iraq - not Saddam and his cronies - suffer for the wickedness of the invasion of Kuwait.

Ever since the war ended - and we were assured that Saddam's army had been destroyed, his country brought to its knees, the Beast of Baghdad himself had been 'defanged' - neither George Bush nor, after him, Bill Clinton have decided whether they want Saddam alive or dead.

If alive, he may be of future use to the west in countering Iran, just as he was when he obligingly went to war with the Islamic Republic in 1980, emerging victorious with the help of Russian, French, German, British and American weapons and satellite pictures. If dead, however, Iraq may turn into an uncontrollable democracy, which may either split apart into Kurdish, Sunni and pro-Iranian Shiite factions or drip the poison of liberty and human rights into the bloodstream of our friendly, yet distinctly undemocratic, Gulf allies.

Anxious to exploit America's indecision, Saddam has ensured that his people pay for the evils of his regime. Western journalists have been freighted to Iraq over the past three years to witness starvation and increasing child mortality in the hope that the television channels would do for the Iraqi Baath party what they had done for the US administration.

It is the economic opportunities of post-war Iraq, rather than the humanitarian tragedy, that have had a greater effect on the outside world. France, Russia and Turkey would like UN sanctions to be lifted. The latter is already quietly breaking UN rules, while threatening to close down the Allied-supported quasi-autonomous Kurdish zone of northern Iraq.

Saddam is hoping that by marching his soldiers up and down in southern Iraq he will focus international attention again on the sanctions issue. Inflation has cut deeply into Iraq and hardship has humiliated the country. Central authority has become eroded by Allied 'safe havens'. Saddam Hussein, watching his Arab and Iranian enemies reap the benefits of US policy, hopes that his military manoeuvres will prompt the West to re-examine its motives in the region.

Put more simply, Saddam is asking the West if a continued military crisis in the Gulf is the price it wishes to pay for maintaining sanctions - which have considerable economic benefits for Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, but whose purpose has been steadily eroded since the end of the second Gulf war in 1991.

(Photograph omitted)