The real agenda

Published : Dec 20, 2002 00:00 IST

The U.S. agenda in Iraq has little to do with weapons of mass destruction and everything to do with the future of Israel in a geopolitical environment of growing hostility.

WEAPONS inspections in Iraq resumed on November 27 in a blaze of media publicity. Officials from the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (Unmovic), which has been entrusted with the task of cleaning out the residual Iraqi capability to produce weapons of mass destruction (WMD), were accompanied on their first visits to facilities in Baghdad by clamorous media crews. Iraq recently announced that it would like to see some degree of media scrutiny of the activities of the weapons inspectors in order to ensure that they did not as in previous episodes in the long-running saga of Iraqi disarmament exceed their mandate. But security personnel at the Baghdad facilities that were honoured with the first inspection visits politely turned away the media teams showing that they were not prepared for the policy of active media oversight. Shortly after the first visits in Baghdad were concluded, weapons inspectors spoke warmly of the cooperation they had received from Iraqi authorities, which, they said, was a hopeful sign. Clearly, the U.S. administration was not impressed by the positive prognoses.

As weapons inspectors began their second day on the job, U.S. Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz put out the ominous warning that Iraq needed to go far beyond compliance in the disarmament process and actually demonstrate "its changed intent". This echoed the constant refrain of the U.S. administration ever since it raised the bellicosity of its rhetoric against Iraq early this year. Mid-November, Richard Perle, a senior adviser in the U.S. Defence Department, was in effect asserting before a British parliamentary audience that the weapons inspection process was irrelevant. Even "a clean bill of health for Iraq" from Unmovic would not induce the U.S. to call off war plans, he said. All that Unmovic chairman Hans Blix could know would be "the results of his own investigations". And however exhaustive these were, they would "not prove that (Iraqi President) Saddam (Hussein) does not have weapons of mass destruction". For Wolfowitz and Perle, who share a close ideological affinity and inhabit the right extremities of the policy spectrum in the U.S. establishment, Blix symbolises much of what is wrong with multilateral approaches.

Just days before the weapons inspectors were scheduled to arrive in Baghdad to resume their mission under a fresh U.N. Security Council mandate, Perle told an audience in London that Blix was simply not the right person for the job: "If it were up to me, on the strength of his previous record, I would not have chosen him for the job". These less-than-supportive comments came in the wake of an inquiry that Wolfowitz sought early this year from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), on Blix's tenure as Director-General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA); Blix is alleged to have missed out on crucial evidence of an Iraqi nuclear weapons programme. Blix responded with a studied understatement. Asked about suspicions that U.S. hawks were undermining his mission, he said: "You could say there is some truth in that." And on the scepticism that has been repeatedly voiced by top U.S. officials, including Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Vice-President Dick Cheney, he said: "I don't see the point of criticising inspections that have not yet taken place... It is not very meaningful".

Another sharp skirmish between hawks in the U.S. administration and the guardians of multilateral diplomacy occurred immediately afterwards. Keenly seeking the opportunity to wage war, a spokesman for U.S. President George W. Bush branded any effort by Iraqi air defence artillery to engage raiding war planes of the U.S. and the United Kingdom, as a material breach of the U.N. Security Council resolutions. The minor inconvenience about this position is that there is no U.N. resolution declaring the so-called "no fly zones" in the north and south of Iraq, far less authorising the U.S. and U.K. to patrol these areas aggressively. In a rare rebuff to the U.S., U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan told the media during a recent visit to Kosovo that he did not share this perception. Neither, he said, did he expect the U.N. Security Council to share such a perception. Rumsfeld responded with mock deference to Annan's "voice and role" in the U.N., but recalled that the U.N. had allegedly done nothing about Iraqi violations of its resolutions for years. The standards of truth and veracity that Rumsfeld uses could well merit serious study.

But Blix, while on a trip to the U.K., warned Prime Minister Tony Blair that he needed to give weapons inspections a chance to succeed. Torn between his abject loyalty to the U.S. and the saner counsels of his domestic constituencies and his European allies, Blair promised that he was committed to the disarmament process. Later, after briefing the U.N. Security Council formally, Blix announced that he intended to hold Iraq to very high standards of proof. "Mustard gas," he said, is "not like marmalade." Anybody engaged in producing the lethal agent would be expected to keep records. It would be in their interest to do so. And it is now in Iraq's interests to yield all such records to the U.N. Iraq's first deadline is on December 8, when it is expected to make a full disclosure of all its weapons production facilities.

The demands placed on it by U.N. Security Council Resolution 1441 are heavy. Iraq would have to put every chemical facility, including vaccine, pharmaceutical and paint manufacturing plants, within the scope of the weapons inspections. It would have to declare every facility using radiological material or equipment; the penalties for any omission are enormous. The U.S. has put language into Resolution 1441 in a manner that could lay Iraq open to military strikes if it fails to meet the contrived expectations of U.S. intelligence on the extent of its weapons programme.

MEANWHILE, the U.S. is working on softening the resistance of Arab states neighbouring Iraq, through a mix of threats and blandishments. After Kuwait, which is in all but name a protectorate, Jordan is the most well-disposed towards the U.S. in the region. But the U.S. does not have any large-scale military facilities in the kingdom. And the damage potential for Jordan from renewed conflict with Iraq is enormous, particularly since its western flank is seething with the Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation. That leaves the U.S. with the task of bringing Saudi Arabia on-side for its offensive against Iraq. And it is a task that is proving deeply corrosive to the traditional amity between the two countries.

Late-November, a panel of U.S. senators came out with evidence of what they said was Saudi funding to some of the hijackers involved in the September 11 terrorist attacks. The funds were allegedly disbursed by Haifa al-Ismail, wife of the Saudi Ambassador to the U.S., Bandar bin Sultan, and daughter of the late king, Faisal bin Abdul Aziz. Although federal investigators concluded that the funds were probably given for a bona fide charitable purpose, several of the senators involved, including some of Israel's staunchest allies on Capitol Hill, used uncharacteristically harsh language in calling upon the Saudi regime to come clean. The Saudis saw this, accurately, as a ploy to coerce the kingdom into acquiescence with the U.S. war plans in Iraq.

"Despite our commitment to being a friend to America, we refuse to be blackmailed," responded the Saudi daily Al-Riyadh, reflecting the viewpoint of the royal family. Soon, White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer came out with a rather bland defence of the Saudis that only gave the game away. "Saudi Arabia," he said, "is a good partner in the war against terrorism, but it could do more." The Jeddah-based Arab News was beside itself. In language that must again have been cleared by the royal family, it accused the U.S. administration of getting caught up in a "hysterical media frenzy" and pandering to "congressional prima donnas in a disgraceful way". Further, it said: "Who does (the U.S.) think it is to administer such a slap in the face or make such imperious demands?"

The character of the dramatis personae in the U.S. administration who are at the forefront of the new phase of belligerence towards Iraq is such that it gives away much of the administration's intents and motivations. That Perle and Wolfowitz should strike contrary notes at a time when weapons inspections have resumed is entirely in character. Both are charter members of a circle of neo-conservative zealots who have a history of divided loyalties. In 1996, when official U.S. policy under Bill Clinton's Democratic Party administration remained to complete the process of exchanging "land for peace" between Israel and the Palestinians, Perle was urging Israel openly to tear up the accord and reoccupy the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In the Perle world-view, Israel is entitled to the entire expanse of land between river Jordan and the Mediterranean, since the Palestinian homeland lies in the Kingdom of Jordan. Among Perle's confederates in this advocacy of the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians was Douglas Feith, who wields renewed influence in the U.S. administration through a senior position in the Defence Department. The increasing verbal excesses of Perle and his associates shows that the U.S. agenda in Iraq has little to do with weapons of mass destruction and everything to do with the future of Israel in a geopolitical environment of growing hostility.

Ironically, just as the weapons inspections in Iraq were beginning, the focus of the war on terror was shifted rather rudely towards two remote parts of the globe. In the Philippines capital of Manila, several Western embassies were shut down indefinitely after "credible and specific" information was received in the words of Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer of intended terrorist strikes. Some believed that this was a case of over-reaction to rather vague intelligence inputs. But there was nothing vague about the two missiles that were fired that day at an Israeli chartered aircraft as it was taking off from an airport in the Kenyan coastal city of Mombassa, only narrowly missing it. Minutes later, a suicide bomb attack in an Israeli-owned hotel in Mombassa left at least 11 persons dead (see box). Israeli Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, even as he went down to defeat in a contest with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for leadership of the right-wing Likud party, spoke of a "very serious escalation" in international terrorism. Israel suffered 34 fatalities in armed strikes over the first three weeks of November. If the threshold of tolerance were to be defined in terms of the number of Israelis who were killed in June, before Ariel Sharon launched his massive onslaught on Palestinian civilian centres, December should bring a much heavier assault. "I've ordered the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) and security troops to war against terror," declared Sharon on November 23. From now on, he said, the IDF would be directed to "chop off the hands of those who try to strike us". Elaborating on his Prime Minister's utterances, Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz a former IDF chief of staff who is under investigation in various Western capitals for war crimes said that there would be no further "limitation" on IDF activity in Palestinian territories. "There are no limits concerning the depth, intensity or duration of activity," he said.

A fortnight before the Mombassa attacks, the Israeli army suffered one of its most serious reverses in an armed engagement. While escorting a group of armed settlers in the Palestinian city of Hebron, an Israeli army contingent came under heavy fire and suffered serious casualties. Speaking to IDF commanders in Hebron shortly afterwards, Sharon urged them to utilise the "opportunity" that presented itself to "establish new facts on the ground that will ensure territorial continuity" between a nearby Jewish settlement and the Jewish community within Hebron. Needless to say, both the Jewish settlement mentioned and the Jewish community within Hebron a few hundred religious fanatics within a resentful Arab population of 150,000 are, by all canons of international law, in illegal occupation. But establishing "territorial continuity" between these communities will involve the demolition of scores of Arab homes in gross violation of all internationally accepted laws and norms.

All this while, the Sharon regime is building what the Palestinians call the world's largest prison a 400-km long "separation wall" across the West Bank to segregate Israeli land from the occupied territories. With the construction having fairly well advanced, several Palestinian habitations have been severed from their hinterland, cultivators deprived of their land and workers sundered from their sources of livelihood. But, Israel is insistent that the wall is not to be considered a national border under any circumstance since it is keen to annexe more Palestinian land before final status negotiations begin. The "facts on the ground" that Israel can create are limited to the West Bank and Gaza Strip. But it needs a broader change in the political geography of the region to ensure that the violent backlash will not destroy it. As for Perle, Wolfowitz and other elements within the right-wing cabal in the U.S., the urgency of remaking the map of the West Asian region in order to secure a more hospitable environment for Israel has never been more urgent. Irrespective of the exertions of Blix and his team in Iraq, the future agenda of U.S. military engagement in the region is being determined in quite a different quarter.

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