The Iraqi axis

Published : Mar 16, 2002 00:00 IST

The U.S. appears to be preparing for a renewed offensive against Iraq in what seems to be a reaffirmation of the "axis of evil" concept that Bush propounded.

THERE have been some signs of late that United States President George W. Bush has begun to dismantle his "axis of evil" conceptualisation with his tone getting subtly more moderate as far as Iran and North Korea are concerned. But Bush's ire remains concentrated on Iraq, which is the hub of that axis. As the U.S. orchestrates a build-up to what could eventually be a unilateralist action against the regime of President Saddam Hussein, Baghdad's options are beginning to look limited.

Iraq will hold a high-level one-off meeting with United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan in the beginning of March and this could be followed up with another session after the Arab League summit at the end of the month. The subject for discussion is expected to be the question of the return of U.N. weapon inspectors to Iraq and the terms under which they will operate as they go about trying to track down and dismantle any remnants from Iraq's weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programme. If the inspectors do return and are granted untrammelled access to all sites where WMD materiel is believed to be hidden or is still being produced, the U.S. will be left without any real justification for action against Baghdad. But the situation appears to have developed well beyond the point where a resumption of weapon inspections could thwart the possibility of U.S. military action.

In the past, U.N. weapons inspectors are understood to have exceeded their brief. One prominent official is on record as having said that the inspecting teams had gathered intelligence on many aspects of Iraq's national security apparatus that often went beyond the WMD and missile programmes. Given this background, Iraq is unlikely to allow untrammelled inspections especially when the U.S. administration has publicly committed itself to the goal of subverting the government in Baghdad. Also, Iraqis believe that previous inspections were carried out in a manner that was calculated to injure their national dignity with the inspectors demanding access to all manner of sites.

The last phase of inspections were carried out under the terms of an agreement between the Iraqi government and the U.N. Secretary-General. Now the Iraqis will insist that inspections be resumed only under the terms of that agreement or in accordance with amendments that have been mutually agreed upon between them and the Secretary-General.

Given the mood in Washington, there is little likelihood that it will allow inspections to be re-started under the terms of the agreement between Iraq and the Secretary-General. Already the U.S. has started building up its case by spreading speculation that Iraq must have mass-produced WMD materiel during the two years since inspections were last conducted or that they must have distributed previously produced materiel to a host of sites all over the country. The Bush administration has indicated already that it will not put up with time-consuming negotiations between Iraq and the Secretary-General before inspections can be resumed.

Over the latter half of the past decade, Iraq had obtained support from Russia, China, France and some other members of the European Union for its case against untrammelled inspections. While most of these states have been warning the U.S. against unilateralist action against Iraq, they have been vague about the positions they will take regarding the nature of the inspections. Nothing definitive has emerged about the circumstances under which Iraq's Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz returned from Moscow earlier this year without holding his scheduled meeting with Russia's President Vladimir Putin. But given the geopolitical situation, this does not augur well for Iraq.

Russia's shifting stance has been evident in the dilution of its opposition to the U.S. proposal for a "smart sanctions" regime against Iraq. Under the proposal, the U.N. Security Council would list the items that Iraq is not allowed to import without specific clearance (while freeing other imports from the need for clearance) and tighten measures to prevent illicit trade. When this proposal was brought before the Security Council last year, Russia had threatened to exercise its veto powers, following which it was withdrawn. But the latest indications are that Russia would support the smart sanctions regime when a proposal is brought up in May before the next phase of the "oil-for-food" programme begins. However, the prospect of a smart sanctions regime (which Iraq opposes since it wants a lifting of sanctions altogether) might be the least of Baghdad's worries, unless the current U.S. approach is meant solely to force Iraq to accept the smart sanctions regime.

Bush and his officials are not in the least hiding their desire for a change of regime in Iraq. Senior officials in the Bush administration have said that they are scrutinising a series of plans to achieve their objectives. In fact, they already appear to have worked out a rough time-table. This programme could get started in early March when British Prime Minister Tony Blair travels to Washington. The U.K. has always been the most enthusiastic supporter of U.S. plans in respect of Iraq, and there have been no official denial of press reports regarding the main purpose of Blair's visit to Washington. Alternatively, it could be launched later in the month when U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney begins his extensive tour of West Asia and North Africa. The former chief executive of the oilfield supply firm Halliburtons is seen as a key figure of the anti-Saddam nucleus within the Bush administration.

Besides the opposition from Russia, another factor that had inhibited U.S. action against Iraq was the uncertainty with regard to the Arab reaction. The times look more propitious for the U.S. from this angle too. Earlier, the U.S. had reason to be concerned about the stability of its moderate Arab allies. Worries on this score should have abated after the U.S. saw the nature of the response on the Arab street to its campaign against the Taliban. Though there were protests across the Arab world and there was near consensus among Arab public opinion that the U.S. was unjustified in acting against the Taliban, all regional regimes were able to contain easily the protests and there was no challenge to the stability of any of the regimes.

Saddam Hussein has been almost as much of a hero to the Arab street as Osama bin Laden ever was. But there is an ambivalence in the attitude towards Saddam, with many willing to accuse him of providing the U.S. with the opportunity and the justification to entrench itself militarily in the region. Arab sympathies are inclined more towards the Iraqi people who have been suffering under sanctions for a decade. And if the U.S. comes out with a military plan that promises minimum damage to the Iraqi people, coterminous with maximum damage to the regime, the U.S. and its allied Arab regimes might be able to ride the tide of protest that will ensue. Despite the evidence now emerging that the U.S. military action in Afghanistan was not as pain-free for ordinary Afghans as it was initially said to be, Washington seems confident that its military apparatus is so fine-tuned that it will only inflict minimal, or at least tolerable, "collateral damage".

More crucially, the Arab regimes appear to have wearied of any prospect that they will be able to reconcile with Iraq as long as Saddam is in power. Their great fear was that the removal of Saddam and the collapse of his regime would lead inevitably to the break-up of Iraq and thereby to regional chaos. The U.S. has been reassuring the Arabs that it does not seek the disintegration of Iraq. Already, at least some of the regional regimes appear to have swung around to the U.S. point of view. Others expect Cheney to explain and elaborate on the plans that are being drawn up.

If the Afghan war template, or some slight variant of it, is to be applied to Iraq, it is more or less certain that the military-technological edge that the U.S. has would do serious damage to Saddam's forces. However, unlike the Taliban, which eventually turned out to be a rag-tag band, Iraq possesses regularly constituted military forces. Whether this makes them more, or less, vulnerable to the sort of pinpoint bombing capability that the U.S. was able to demonstrate over Afghanistan is debatable. Another and more important issue is whether the U.S. has identified Iraqi forces that can be used for assaults on the ground as the Northern Alliance was used in Afghanistan.

There has been some talk about the Iraqi National Congress (INC), a loose conglomeration of opposition forces headed by Ahmed Chalabi, emerging as the equivalent of the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan. Given the incompetence that the INC has displayed so far - it could not even properly account for the small tranche of financial assistance that the U.S. has granted - the possibility of its emerging as the equivalent of the Northern Alliance appears ludicrous. Another possibility being spoken of is about the U.S. using the two Kurdish factions that have enclaves in the north of Iraq. However, the probability of these factions being used would depend on whether Turkey - always worried about such incendiary tendencies influencing its Kurdish minorities - can be brought around. The last possibility is that the U.S. has made, or hopes to make, headway in suborning sections of the Iraqi military.

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