Road map to war

Published : Jan 03, 2003 00:00 IST

Iraq has made its declaration on its weapons programmes, and there are widespread fears that the U.S. may use this to add credibility to its own war efforts.

SINCE the `war on terror' began in October last year, the United States has brought to the global arena a unique blend of capabilities unparalleled military might and encompassing intelligence, a moral sensibility that recognises only the Manichean extremes of good and evil, and an information apparatus that glosses over the worst abuses of the U.S. and its allies while ruthlessly holding adversaries culpable for real and imagined transgressions. These credentials now stand augmented by claims that the U.S. possesses photocopying skills that few other countries have, even less so, multilateral agencies like the United Nations.

On December 7, Iraq unveiled for the media in Baghdad a voluminous compilation which, it claimed, was a full and "currently accurate'' declaration of all its programmes for the development of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Overnight, the documentation running to over 11,000 pages and several compact disks was transported to the U.N. headquarters in New York. As agreed by the U.N. Security Council, the documents were to be scrutinised by the body mandated to oversee Iraqi disarmament the U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission, or Unmovic and purged of any contents that could be of utility in designing a nuclear device. Following this, the documentation was to be placed before the full membership of the Security Council for assessment.

The preceding week had been full of monitory warnings from the U.S. that December 8, when Iraq was obliged to compile its weapons declaration, would determine whether it was serious about averting war. Disregarding the hopeful prognoses of all the participants in the process, U.S. President George W. Bush certified the resumed weapons inspections in Iraq as a virtual failure. But once the Iraqi declaration arrived in New York, the U.S. administration suffered an acute attack of anxiety neurosis. Now in a desperate hurry, it demanded immediate access to the weapons dossier, coercing Colombia, which held the rotating presidency of the Security Council, to tear up the confidentiality agreement that had been arrived at scarcely a week earlier.

It did not pass comment that U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who strong-armed the Colombian government into acquiescence, had visited that country just days before and held out large promises of aid to combat the long-running insurgency in the country. Nor did it escape attention that the U.S. demand to be given first access to the Iraq dossier was unmatched by any commitments of reciprocity. Indeed, the U.S. had been making extravagant claims that it had incontrovertible evidence of Iraq's persistence in pursuing an ambitious WMD programme, while refusing, to the evident irritation of the U.N., to share that information with inspection teams on the ground.

The U.S.' alibi is that it cannot at this stage share any information with Unmovic because that could compromise its own sources on the ground. In upholding its own putative findings, it has lost little opportunity to denounce the Iraqi regime as habitually prone to falsehood. But by some mysterious mutation, a voluntary weapons disclosure made by the incurable dissemblers in Baghdad became hot property on arrival in New York.

The U.S. had an explanation ready. Since the P-5 (or the five permanent members of the Security Council) are all declared nuclear weapons powers, there was little they could learn from Iraq about the techniques of bomb-making. At the same time, the U.S.' unique skills made Washington D.C. the appropriate place at which the photocopying of the documents could be undertaken, for later scrutiny by the P-5.

Syria, the lone Arab nation in the Security Council, remained unconvinced. "We are not happy," said the Syrian envoy to the U.N. The U.S. action, he said, was "in contradiction to the political logic, to the procedural logic, to every kind of logic the Security Council used to work on."

Norway, which holds a rotating seat on the Security Council, also made its objections clear, while Mexico was only a reluctant convert to the U.S. plan. For its part, Russia sought to make light of it. "The sole purpose of this exercise," said the Russian Ambassador, was "to make sure that non-proliferation treaties are respected." And Hans Blix, the executive chairman of Unmovic, professed himself unfazed, since his agency was committed to working "at the service of the Security Council''.

Engaged since long in a keen contest for moral advantage, Iraq was quick to denounce the U.S. action as "banditry unparalleled in the history" of the U.N. Official spokespersons in Baghdad alleged that the U.S. had carried out a pre-emptive strike and in the many hours that it had the declaration under its sole control, could have doctored sections of it to build a case for war against Iraq.

Iraq's apprehensions seem to have a basis in the conduct of Unmovic's predecessor body, Unscom (United Nations Special Commission). In June 1998, the Australian diplomat Richard Butler, who was then Unscom head, reported to the Security Council that missile fragments discovered in Iraq revealed that they had once been armed with warheads carrying the deadly nerve agent VX. The findings of the U.S. laboratory, said Butler, were "utterly unambiguous". A few months later, parallel tests done at Swiss and French laboratories revealed that Butler had been economical with the truth. Rather than pursue this dubious line of attack, the U.S. quietly let the matter drop; instead, it used Butler for a series of deliberate provocations with the intent of provoking war.

It seems unlikely that the U.S. will resort to the stratagem of doctoring the record when back-up documentation exists in Iraq. But it is obviously keen to make the fullest possible use of the clause in Security Council Resolution 1441, which holds that "false statements or omissions in the declarations submitted by Iraq at any time... shall constitute further material breach" of that country's obligations.

U.S. intelligence inputs are known to have gone into the dossier on Iraqi WMD released by British Prime Minister Tony Blair last September. It is now considered a fair guess that the P-5 and Unmovic will seek to assess Iraq's declaration against U.S. assertions. The U.S. intelligence estimates if the British dossier and recent remarks made by former Defence Secretary William Cohen in a BBC World interview are any indication are fairly specific. Despite a decade of sanctions and eight years of virtually uninterrupted inspections, Iraq is in the dock for being in possession, among other proscribed material and equipment, of 360 tonnes of bulk chemical warfare agent, including 1.5 tonnes of VX, up to 3,000 tonnes of precursor chemicals for use in weapons, growth media sufficient for the production of up to 25,000 litres of biological agents, and more than 30,000 special munitions for delivery of chemical and biological agents.

The verification process is not likely to be quick. Inferences of a "material breach" would have to be carefully corroborated through circumstantial evidence and material audits. The sheer bulk of documentation submitted by Iraq now obliges Unmovic to spend an appropriate length of time assessing its credibility.

IN U.N. terminology, a "material breach'' could be a trigger for war. But to begin its military operations on a concerted scale rather than the sporadic strikes currently under way the U.S. would need to assemble a larger armed contingent in the region than it currently has. Though deployment has been under way for the past few months, optimal force levels are expected to be reached only by end-January. The U.S. hopes that this will converge with a finding of "material breach" on the part of Iraq to allow for quick commencement of operations and an early conclusion before the devastating summer heat sets in. Its anxiety to obtain the Iraqi declaration without the delay of sanitisation is easily understood in terms of the tight time schedules it has set for itself.

However, the U.S. still faces a serious dilemma. If it is to obtain multilateral sanction for its war plans, it would necessarily have to share its exclusive intelligence with Unmovic and painstakingly establish the fact that there has been a deliberate deception by Iraq. In case there is a conflict between the Iraqi declaration and U.S. findings, Unmovic would have the sole authority to determine which of the two sources is more accurate. Under Resolution 1441, Unmovic has time until late-February to provide a preliminary report to the Security Council on Iraqi compliance. Every way it is viewed, Unmovic holds the key to the multilateral sanction the U.S. seeks for action in Iraq. Having embarked upon the process, the U.S. would now be obliged to go through its formal requirements. And that puts the plan for a U.N.-sanctioned attack within the January-February time window in serious jeopardy.

There could be another serious embarrassment in the Iraqi weapons dossier. In hearings in the Senate earlier this year, U.S. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was questioned about transactions in weapons material and equipment with Iraq during the 1980s, for a part of which he served as special presidential envoy to Iraq. With only Robert Byrd, the veteran Senator from Virginia, being prepared to ask the tough questions, Rumsfeld managed to get away with a strategy of evasion and prevarication. The Iraqi dossier now is known to include a substantial section dealing with the suppliers of material for its WMD programme. If the contents are known, they could be a serious embarrassment to the governments of both the U.S. and the United Kingdom, as also Rumsfeld personally.

If the going gets unduly complicated, it is more than likely that the U.S. will choose the easy way out and start the bombing of Iraq. The war party led by Vice-President Dick Cheney, Rumsfeld and a host of lesser officials in the Departments of State and Defence has only temporarily surrendered its ascendancy in Washington to the multilateralists. The irksome burdens and delays of multilateralism are already engendering considerable unease in these circles. Beyond a point, delaying the invasion of Iraq is not an option.

IRAQI Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz summed up the situation rather well in a recent interview with a U.S. news network. Weapons inspection, he pointed out, were a "hoax" since "war was inevitable". The stated U.N. purpose of disarmament had long since been supplanted by the U.S. goal of "regime change" in Iraq. But as Aziz pointed out, the true objective went beyond this to "region change" redrawing the map of the West Asian region to provide a more comfortable environment for the beleaguered state of Israel and safeguard U.S. control over oil. Asked about the possible reasons for U.S. war preparations against Iraq, Aziz summed up the case with an eloquent economy of words: "Oil and Israel."

To this may be added another compelling reason: that war is proving to be the Bush administration's most potent weapon of mass distraction. With the U.S. economy in a tailspin, social security a shambles and retirement funds depleted by the precipitous fall of the stock market, Bush is in need of a cause that will define the residual years of his first term and set the agenda for the pursuit of a second. Prospective challengers from the Democratic Party John Kerry and Al Gore, notably have already begun accusing the administration of using the threat of war and terrorism to divert the public from its growing concerns about the economy. And with unemployment climbing relentlessly and poverty levels at their highest in a decade, Bush's attitude of sunny denial seemed to waver early December, when he peremptorily sacked both the Treasury Secretary and the White House's principal economic adviser.

A crucial appointment made by Bush early in December also suggests an ominous new phase of turmoil in West Asia. Elliot Abrams, a pugnacious conservative and Jewish zealot, was moved from a relatively inconsequential post in the National Security Council to the pivotal position of Director, Middle-East Policy. The appointment was read accurately, as an overture to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who had been troubled by the obligation to swear publicly by the "Road Map to Peace" that had been crafted by the U.S., in association with the U.N., the European Union and the Russian Republic. Abrams' arrival in a position of influence in Washington effectively frees Sharon from this obligation. And it widens the rift within the U.S. administration, shifting the balance of advantage towards the war party, which always viewed the "Road Map" as an unworkable plan drawn up by the overly conciliatory and moderate State Department under Colin Powell.

Like Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle and Douglas Feith all influential figures at the second tier of the Bush administration Abrams has never believed that any kind of a peace process between Israel and Palestine is even remotely feasible. He goes beyond them in couching his case in an unabashedly fundamentalist idiom. He has for long argued against assimilative tendencies in Judaism and urged the case for an alliance between U.S. Jews and Evangelical Christians in the cause of Israel. Since earning a conviction for perjury in the Iran-Contra scandal of the Reagan presidency, his voice had been relatively muted. But a presidential pardon handed out by the senior Bush saved him a term in jail. And his appointment as NSC Director for Human Rights and Democracy by the junior Bush last year partially rehabilitated him. The recent lateral shift within the NSC now restores him to the central arena of decision-making. The implications are absolutely clear: the war with Iraq will begin sooner rather than later. And atrocities against Palestinian civilians will escalate rapidly in the months ahead, by both the Israeli Defence Forces and illegal Jewish settlers.

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