A decade of attrition

Print edition : February 03, 2001

Bush Junior seems set to seek the completion of a deadly task that Bush Senior started off in Iraq in January 1991.

EVEN accepting monotonic ideological uniformity as a given in American politics, there was something curious about the manner in which the candidates in the recent presidential elections sought to outbid each other in their belligerence towards Iraq. As George W. Bush ascends to the office that was held by his father, now remembered for little other than planning, leading and delighting in, a war of destruction against Iraq, he is learnt to be making ambitious plans to complete a job that has remained u nfinished since then. Ten years after the Gulf war, the son prepares to revisit the terrain that his father laid waste to. The people of Iraq, who have seen their country besieged, bludgeoned and vivisected over the last decade, may well wonder what is t he worst he can do. The office that Bush holds is now routinely described as the most powerful in the world, a characterisation that originates in part in the impunity with which his father pursued a war against Iraq without any of the encumbrances of pu blic scrutiny. The son, though, is unlikely to enjoy the unique advantages of the father.

Ten days prior to taking office, George W. Bush met the U.S. military's top strategists and commanders for a briefing on global trouble spots where potential eruptions could threaten American interests, necessitating the despatch of troops. It was report ed on the basis of high-level leaks that over half the 75-minute meeting was devoted to a discussion of Iraq. All through his election campaign Bush had talked insistently, though without great coherence, about strengthening sanctions against Iraq and pr oviding the opponents of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein with the military and logistical means to effect a change of regime. He was careful of course never to go into specific details, or to engage with the awkward fact that the Clinton administration's policy towards Iraq has been premised upon precisely these principles.

The new U.S. Secretary of State, Colin Powell - again a Bush family inheritance from the days of the Gulf war - reserved some of his bluntest words for Iraq at his first interaction with the media since earning his nomination: "Saddam Hussein is sitting on a failed regime that is not going to be around in a few years' time. We are in the strong position, he is in the weak position. We will work with our allies to re-energise the sanctions (against Iraq)."

EXPECTEDLY, the Iraqi response to the most recent verbal provocations has been bold. The official Iraqi media described Powell as a "war criminal" and his remarks were dismissed as irrelevant: "The choice of Colin Powell, an arrogant military man who und erstands nothing of how to manage political affairs, proves that the new U.S. administration has nothing new to offer, except for continued aggression against the will of independent peoples."

Over the preceding month, Iraq had made a forceful effort to break out of the economic isolation it has suffered since the August 1990 invasion of Kuwait. High-level diplomatic exchanges took place with Syria, Russia, China and India late in November. Du ring a visit to New Delhi Iraqi Vice-President Taha Yassin Ramadan offered a bilateral package of swapping oil for food, pricing oil at a level that India, with its balance of payments under pressure, should have found attractive. Similar deals were also pursued separately with other buyers of Iraqi oil. In most instances Iraq offered an attractive rebate on the price of oil, on condition that a surcharge of 50 cents a barrel be paid by the buyer into an account controlled by the Iraqi government.

These proposals failed to gain approval from the U.N. Sanctions Committee which oversees all Iraqi trade transactions. Revenues from the sale of oil continue to be deposited in an escrow account controlled by this agency, which makes out payments to supp liers of material ordered by the Iraqi government. Every transaction is closely scrutinised, with the United States and the United Kingdom being particularly diligent in blocking the purchase of such items as food testing equipment, water treatment plant s and essential medical material.

Confronted with another rejection, the Iraqi regime briefly cut off the flow of oil from their fields. Over the last year, the country's daily output has increased to 2.3 million barrels a day, about 5 per cent of the total global trade. A choking off of this would have meant a potential spiral in world prices, with rather grim consequences. But the U.S. quickly made it known that it would fight off any Iraqi curtailment by dipping into its own strategic petroleum reserves and the loyal Saudi Arabian re gime also indicated that it would increase production. Oil prices were contained and Iraq resumed exports by mid-December. But while the stalemate persisted, Saddam Hussein made the rather grandiose donation of the equivalent of euros 100 million for the poor in the U.S.

This was of course a gesture in keeping with Iraq's record of seeking to turn grim adversity into moral advantage. But the U.S. State Department was sufficiently piqued to respond with a highly personalised attack on the leadership of the Iraqi President . There are indications, though, that the U.S. is increasingly worried over the leverage that Iraq has obtained in regional affairs, especially with the "peace process" between Palestine and Israel now lying in tatters.

Late in November, Iraq sought with some success to put itself in the forefront of the struggle for Palestinian rights. In a formal representation to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Foreign Minister Mohammed Sayeed al-Sahaf urged that a part of the rev enues earned from Iraqi oil sales be allocated to the Palestinians. This decision had been taken, Sahaf told Annan, because the Palestinians deserved the full support of the Arab nations in their struggle against "the criminal Zionist acts against them". The text of the letter, which was published by the official Iraqi media, read in part as follows: "The government of Iraq asks you officially to allocate a share of the memorandum of understanding of 20/5/1996 between Iraq and the U.N. to the people of Palestine to support its national stand. A share of Iraqi funds is a legitimate right of the Palestinians to support their defence of their land in accordance with the U.N. charter."

In the midst of the Palestinian uprising against decades of occupation and expropriation, Israel is believed to be contemplating a unilateral "final separation" in the most likely eventuality that the moribund peace process fails to come to life again. W hether it is the Labour Party or the right-wing Likud bloc that comes to power in the election on February 6, the topography of this severance is unlikely to be radically different. The only difference is that under Labour, the Palestinian side may be of fered the option of voluntarily acquiescing, through an agreement guaranteed by the U.S., in their final dispossession from the land.

THE preparations are under way. In the four months since the last phase of the Palestinian intifada began, Israel has followed a scorched earth policy in clearing Arab population centres in the occupied territories. One estimate is that in occupie d Gaza, the Israeli Army cleared no less than 1,000 acres (400 hectares) of their Palestinian inhabitants. Overwhelmingly, the priority seems to be to provide secure routes of access to Israel proper for the Jewish settlers in the occupied territory. The Palestinian side to the Oslo peace negotiations naively believed that Israel would ultimately dismantle the illegal settlements it had built on occupied territories. Clearly, the final intent of Israel is not merely to maintain these outposts, but to fo rtify them by throwing more Palestinians off their lands. As it prepares finally to define its borders, the Jewish state is rehearsing its final gesture of contempt against every resolution of the U.N., beginning with the one adopted at its very foundati on which insisted on the return of Palestinian refugees as the basic condition for the admission of Israel into the world body.

Israeli arrogance is only likely to fuel resentment within the Arab world over the pronounced asymmetry in the U.N.'s dealings with Iraq. Ever since the occupation of Kuwait in 1990, Iraq has been forced to fall in line with a series of resolutions that have often cut sharply into its sovereignty. And every such effort at compliance that the Iraqi regime has made has been followed by a raising of the bar - an insistence by the U.S. and the U.K. particularly, that ever more stringent conditions should be met before sanctions could be lifted.

Under enormous moral pressure from the world community, the U.S. and the U.K. have consented to a steady increase in the quantum of oil that Iraq is allowed to sell to finance its essential purchases. Aided partly by buoyant conditions in the global petr oleum market, Iraq last year managed to sell oil worth $17 billion. But only about 60 per cent of this is available for its imports of food, medicine and other essential supplies. The rest is earmarked for a U.N. compensation fund that has of late seen g rowing claims from Kuwait and other nations.

Hans von Sponeck, the German official who quit as U.N. humanitarian coordinator in Iraq to protest against the continued intransigence of the U.S. and the U.K., estimates that the funding available under the oil-for-food programme was equivalent to $113 per person a year in the first three phases of the programme. This increased to $252 in the next three phases, and then to $408. This, he says, is woeful: "No one can defend such funding as adequate, given the knowledge of the human conditions in Iraq to day. Oil revenue, the meagre lifeline for the Iraqi population, however, is deeply politicised by all parties."

The U.S. and the U.K. have insisted that the blame lies not with the programme, but with the Iraqi authorities' wilful withholding of essential supplies from the people. On this matter too, von Sponeck's findings, presented in an article written in July 2000, should be accepted as authoritative: "It was shown in a stock analysis done by the U.N. in February 2000 that 91.7 per cent of all humanitarian supplies had been distributed to end users since the inception of the programme. This is a figure that t he U.S. government simply ignores. Instead, there is the continued accusation of hoarding by the Iraqi regime, a completely incorrect assertion."

Benon Sevan, Director of the Iraq Programme at the U.N. headquarters, has also concluded after extensive tours of inspection that the distribution procedures followed by the Iraqi authorities are the best that can be managed in the circumstances. His fin dings are that the oil-for-food programme has made no more than a minimal impact on life in Iraq, since it is not easy to reverse the legacy of a war of destruction and over five years of complete isolation. The U.N. humanitarian operation is limited by its own bureaucratic procedures, which hamper efficacy. Only a complete lifting of sanctions and the resumption of normal economic activity will now serve the purpose of bringing life back to Iraq, he concludes.

Since pulling out its inspectors from Iraq in December 1998, the U.N. has been unable to resume its weapons decommissioning work. A body constituted under the leadership of atomic energy specialist Hans Blix went through an intensive programme of trainin g, but was then asked to disperse last year since there was no immediate prospect of it gaining access to Iraqi sites. Later, Kofi Annan and the second-ranking official in the Iraqi political hierarchy, Izzat Ibrahim, met during an Arab League summit in Qatar and agreed to start discussions on arms inspections after the month of Ramzan. Over a month after the Islamic month of penance and fasting concluded, there is no prospect of the meeting taking place. The U.N. system clearly faces a challenge to its credibility. Its own bureaucrats are in open dissent with the U.S. and the U.K., which seek to bend the world body to their will. And it is now widely acknowledged that the so-called arms inspection regime was, especially under the leadership of the con niving Australian diplomat Richard Butler, transformed into a front for U.S. espionage directed at the overthrow of the Iraqi regime.

The older George Bush left office in 1993 after firing off a volley of 45 Tomahawk missiles against an industrial complex near Baghdad. Six months later, his successor Bill Clinton made his debut on the world stage by firing 27 missiles at the Iraqi inte lligence headquarters, ostensibly in retaliation for an unsuccessful assassination attempt against Bush. Since December 1998, American and British warplanes have kept up a continuing war of attrition against Iraq, bombing randomly chosen targets at will, often at the cost of civilian life. How soon the younger George Bush would feel compelled to demonstrate his will in deploying the formidable American military machine in a punitive engagement against Iraq, remains to be seen. But he is clearly going to have a far more complex job justifying his actions to the world community than either his father or his immediate predecessor did.

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