A celebration of grit

Published : May 25, 2002 00:00 IST

People in Iraq celebrate Saddam Hussein's birthday as never before, even as the Bush administration's "regime change" talk continues.

JOHN CHERIAN in Baghdad, Basra and Kirkuk

AROUND eight million people came out on the streets of Iraq to celebrate the 65th birthday of President Saddam Hussein on April 28, a national holiday. Iraqi officials say that more Iraqis were on the streets this year than in previous years to show their defiance of the United States. The Bush administration has made the overthrow of the Saddam Hussein government one of its explicit policy goals. Senior U.S. officials have been talking with greater frequency in recent months about bringing about "a regime change" in Baghdad.

In the last week of April, the Pentagon made it known that it was contemplating the deployment of up to 250,000 troops to launch an air campaign and ground invasion against Iraq early next year. The White House has kept postponing its deadline. Earlier this year, selective leaks from senior U.S. officials predicted an attack in mid-2002, but the events in Palestine seem to have forced a reappraisal. Most of the rhetoric emanating from Washington is part of the propaganda blitz meant to destabilise and demoralise the Iraqi populace and leadership.

However, the psychological warfare has not had much of an impact. Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz told reporters in Baghdad in late April that the U.S. was unable to persuade any state to ally with it to launch aggression against Iraq. He said that the situation was different from that in 1991. According to him, international public opinion is now behind the Iraqis. Aziz said that the world now was fully aware of the sufferings of the Iraqi people due to the decade-old economic sanctions. Aziz refuted Washington's allegations that Iraq continued to be a threat to its neighbours. He said that Iraq had normalised its relations with all its neighbours, including Iran, Kuwait, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

At the Arab League Summit held in Beirut on March 28, Izzat Ibrahim, a senior member of Iraq's Revolutionary Command Council, and Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdelaziz al Saud, embraced each other to the standing ovation of the assembled dignitaries. The Kuwaiti Minister of Foreign Affairs then shook hands with Izzat Ibrahim. There are indications that Iraq and Kuwait may soon exchange prisoners of war, held since the 1991 conflict.

Both Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have made it known to Washington that they are against any new American military adventure against Iraq. In fact, the Saudis have asked the U.S. to wind down its military bases in the country. Senior Pentagon officials are, however, trying to put on a brave face after the recent diplomatic reverses the U.S. suffered in the region. They say that the military bases in Saudi Arabia will be relocated in Qatar and military operations against Iraq will be conducted from that country and Turkey.

According to Iraqi officials, it is inconceivable that Turkey will once again join the U.S. in any military operations. Iraq and Turkey have a thriving cross-border trade with an annual turnover of $3 billion to 4 billion. Besides, Washington's game plan of encouraging Kurdish secessionist activity in northern Iraq is viewed with suspicion in Ankara. The Turkish authorities fear that such a move would encourage their own Kurdish population to raise the banner of revolt once again. The Turkish government is only thinking of allowing the use of the Kurdish language in the media. Iraq, on the other hand, has accorded it the status of the official second language and the Kurds are recognised as the second largest nationality after Iraqi Arabs.

The U.S strategy at this juncture, a half-baked one at that, seems to be to encourage the Kurds in the north and the Shia population in the south of Iraq to break away from the government in Baghdad. (There was an attempt by outside forces to whip up secessionist emotions among the Shias in the immediate aftermath of the Gulf war. There were brief uprisings in Najaf and Karbala, which ended as soon as the Iraqi Army arrived on the scene.)

Around 20 per cent of the territory in the north, including the towns of Arbil and Sulaymaniyah, is under the de facto control of the Kurdish factions that are opposed to the Iraqi government and are protected by U.S. and British planes patrolling the "no-fly zones". "We left the area without fighting. We can re-enter the area in a day's time," said a senior Iraqi official. Pentagon officials also admit that the Iraqi Army is capable of defeating "any confrontation by proxy". The only other option left for the Bush administration is to deploy its own troops in large numbers for an invasion.

Iraqi officials point out that, during the Gulf war, the armies of 28 nations surrounded Iraq and that they had the sanctity of a U.N. Security Council resolution to justify their actions. "There were half a million American soldiers along with 200,000 from those nations. In all there were 5,000 tanks and 3,000 jet fighters deployed against Iraq. Yet they could not defeat us. America had to declare a unilateral ceasefire," said the Iraqi Ambassador to India, Sallah al-Mukhtar. American military officers have been quoted as saying that moving tens of thousands of troops to a region with access more limited than what was available in the Gulf war could be a logistical challenge. They admit that the U.S. Army of today has not fought the kind of dangerous and complicated urban battles that might be needed to oust the government in Baghdad.

Sallah al-Mukhtar is of the opinion that the worst that the U.S. can do is to resort to aerial bombing and once again damage the country's infrastructure. According to Iraqi officials, the strength of Iraq's "Jerusalem army" stands at six million well-trained soldiers. Besides, there is the million-strong militia of the ruling Ba'ath Socialist Party. Arms have been distributed to another one million Iraqi civilians. Recently, the top leaders of the government and the Ba'ath Party, including Tariq Aziz, underwent training in the use of light arms.

From Kirkuk in the north to the port of Basra in the south, people seem to be united as never before. In Basra, more than 100,000 people, young and old, marched down the main avenue, braving the intense heat to celebrate Saddam's birthday. They carried banners protesting against the U.S. policies for the region and the genocide against the Palestinian people. The marchers included women in traditional Islamic dress and Islamic clerics.

The whole of Kirkuk and surrounding areas had turned up for the birthday procession, which lasted around three hours. Among the participants were tens of thousands of Kurds, conspicuous in their traditional dress. The Iraqi government seems to be fully in control of the key areas in the north.

According to Iraqi officials, the birthday celebration was one way of displaying Iraq's unity and its defiance of Washington. Statues and portraits of Saddam have proliferated in the last one year. "Welcome to Arab Saddam's Iraq," reads a sign just after the visitor leaves Baghdad airport. "Down with America" is another, scrawled in red letters on the floor of the airport terminal.

According to the Iraqi Oil Minister Amir Muhammed Rashid, Saddam Hussein is a "symbol of our Arab nation, our civilisation". Nasra Al-Sadoon, Editor-in-Chief of the English language Iraq Daily, said that Saddam Hussein's birthday this year came during a critical period for the Palestinian and Iraqi people. "Celebrating our leader's birthday is celebrating our resistance, resilience and rebirth. Saddam Hussein isn't a President like others, he is the symbol of resistance to the Zionist-American plots to monopolise Arab resources. He also symbolises the Iraqi will to defend our independence. Every year we celebrate the leader's birthday to prove to the world that Iraq has chosen a leader from among their ranks and not a ruler imposed by Washington or London," said Al-Sadoun.

Basra is not as spic and span as Baghdad, but efforts are under way to improve the quality of life in Iraq's third largest city. The city has been the centre of cultural life since ancient times. Legend has it that "Sindbad the Sailor" hailed from these parts and undertook his epic voyages to countries like India from Basra. Basra stands on the strategic Shattal-Arab waterway. Besides oil, Basra was famous for its tasty dates. But most of the estimated 30 million date palms were destroyed during the war with Iran in the 1980s and the Gulf war. Iraqi officials allege that U.S. warplanes used biological agents to spread disease in the date plantations. Iraqi agricultural scientists have made significant progress in recent years to revive date cultivation.

The Iraqi government is building a big waterway to provide the people of Basra drinking water. This canal, the third largest waterway in Iraq after the Tigris and the Euphrates, will help the authorities reclaim fallow land for agriculture. Haphazard land reforms in the late 1950s had led to a decline in agriculture. After the events of the last two decades, Iraq wants to be self-sufficient in food.

Kirkuk floats on a lake of oil. Its refineries were among the first to be nationalised. The West has never reconciled itself fully to the loss of control over Iraqi oil. Iraq is the third largest producer of oil in the world. For most of April, pumping systems in Kirkuk and other parts of Iraq did not work to capacity as the government observed a month-long moratorium on the export of oil in a show of solidarity with the Palestinian people.

Saddam's image has been enhanced in the Arab world by his decision to halt oil exports temporarily. Iraqi oil exports resumed on May 9 following lack of support from other oil exporters in the region, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia. It was the Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Khamanei who first gave the call to use oil as a weapon to show Islamic and Arab solidarity with the beleaguered Palestinian people. It is another matter that there was no follow-up action from the Iranian government. The price of oil went up by $2 a barrel immediately after Iraq's decision. But the Saudi Crown Prince's assurance to Bush that his country would not use oil as a weapon, once again stabilised international oil prices and eased the pressure on Washington, allowing the Bush administration to continue with its all-out support for the terror policies of the Israeli government in the West Bank.

Amir Rashid told correspondents in Baghdad in the last week of April that the impact of the Iraqi decision on the oil market "was good, though not as good as we had hoped for". Iraq currently produces around 10 per cent of the output in the member-states of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and accounts for only less than 4 per cent of the global output. According to Rashid, "the American government lost $2.25 billion" owing to the one-month suspension of oil exports.

Rashid is of the opinion that all the oil in the yet to be exploited Alaska reserves in the U.S. and in the Caspian is not enough to offset in the foreseeable future the role of West Asian oil. He said that if the Arab oil producers cut their production even by half, "there will be a devastating effect on the U.S. economy": he argued that the Arab economies would not suffer as oil prices would consequently double while the U.S. economy would haemorrhage to the tune of $8 billion to $10 billion a month, forcing the Bush administration to dip into its strategic oil reserves. Rashid went on to add that the Arabs can impose their will on the Bush administration "because of the wealth and resources we have, so that they will have a more balanced and legitimate policy towards Palestine. Our economy will be strengthened by sacrificing a little for a short period so that long-term gains can be achieved for the Arab people".

The Iraqi Oil Minister stressed that the Palestinian people's victory would be a victory for the entire Arab nation over the "American-injected Zionist entity in the region". He said that the suffering of the Iraqi people was nothing compared to the suffering of the Palestinian people. "Only our leadership has the independent will to stand up against America and Zionism," he said. The Iraqi government provides $25,000 for the family of every Palestinian who is martyred in the current struggle against Israel. The injured get $10,000 each, and for every house demolished by Israeli jet planes and bulldozers, the Iraqi government provides $25,000.

MEANWHILE, Washington is pursuing its other important agenda - that of sending U.N. arms inspectors back to Iraq. Tariq Aziz said that "it was too early" to talk about the issue. The Iraqi government had despatched its Foreign Minister Naji Sabri to New York to hold talks with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan on this and related issues. However, it is clear that Baghdad is in no hurry to take a decision. Aziz said that if Washington used the issue as a pretext to launch aggression against Iraq, the Iraqi people and their leaders would defend their country and their sovereignty. "George Bush is the President of the U.S. He can make decisions in his own country but he does not have the right or the capability to change anything outside his own country, especially for this courageous country, Iraq," said Aziz, in response to questions about the U.S. sabre-rattling on the issue.

Baghdad and the international community are not blind to the Bush administration's attempts to pressure Hans Blix, the new head of the arms inspection team. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), under specific instructions from the U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defence Paul Wolfowitz, a leading proponent of "regime change" and "redrawing maps", conducted an investigation into the performance of Blix as chairman of the Arms Commission. The message to Blix was that he should toe the U.S. line on Iraq or face a bleak future in the U.N., like the recently removed head of the Chemical Weapons Convention.

The hardliners in the Bush administration want to use the "inspection issue" to launch a large-scale attack on Iraq. As things stand, the Iraqi authorities also have their doubts about Blix; they note that as the former chairman of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), he refused to give the country a clean chit, despite the IAEA having certified that "Iraq has satisfactorily completed its full final and complete declaration of its clandestine nuclear programme". The officials also point out that the U.S. has violated the U.N. Charter by trying to influence an international civil servant, after details of a CIA investigation of Blix leaked out.

The U.N. weapons inspection programme has been mandated by a Security Council Resolution after the Gulf war ended. But Iraqi officials point out that Israel refused only recently to implement a U.N. Resolution relating to state terrorism and genocide in Jenin in the West Bank. They say that the U.N. has to look into many other equally important issues relating to Iraq and not confine itself to "weapons inspection".

Baghdad wants Washington to respect U.N. Resolutions concerning Iraq's sovereignty and territorial integrity. Bush has been stating that the major goal of his administration is the overthrow of the Iraqi government. This is against the spirit of the U.N. Resolutions asking that the unity and integrity of Iraq be respected. The Bush administration has also talked about using "tactical nuclear weapons" against Iraq. "Regime change" as envisaged by the U.S. could culminate in a holocaust. Baghdad has also demanded the scrapping of the two "no-fly zones", which do not have any international sanction.

Iraq is not averse to letting the new arms inspection team into the country provided there is a fixed time-frame and it is part of a package deal. Iraq insists that it will not allow the issue of arms inspection to dominate its dealings with the U.N. "One single agenda would not be accepted," said the Iraqi Ambassador in India. Blix has talked about a one-year time-table. Iraq would prefer the inspection period to last for six to 12 months, and it expects that after this punitive sanctions will be lifted. Iraqi authorities say that their country has been free of weapons of mass destruction for quite some time. Besides, they argue that the economic embargo on Iraq was imposed because of the crisis over Kuwait. That issue has now been amicably solved between the two countries. Iraq's position can be said to have been broadly supported by the three permanent members of the Security Council - France, Russia and China.

The continuing embargo is claiming more and more casualties. In April, 16,000 Iraqis died. According to al-Mukhtar, half of those who died were below the age of five. In March, there were around 10,000 deaths. In the last 10 years, more than a million people, mostly children, have died in what some people describe as a "medieval siege" orchestrated by Washington and London. In the last couple of years, two senior U.N. officials, Dennis Halliday and Hans von Sponeck, have resigned after serving in Iraq. They described the sanctions as "genocide".

In a recent article written jointly by them, they say: "The most recent report of the U.N. Secretary-General, in October 2001, says that the U.S. and the U.K. governments' blocking of $4 billion of humanitarian supplies is by far the greatest constraint on the implementation of the oil-for-food programme." The report says that in contrast the Iraqi government's distribution of humanitarian supplies is fully satisfactory. The death of some 5,000-6,000 children a month is mostly due to the contaminated water, lack of medicines and malnutrition. "The U.S. and U.K. governments' delayed clearance of equipment and materials is responsible for the tragedy, not Baghdad," added the report.

Washington wants to tighten the screws further on Iraq by influencing countries like India. Recently, former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker was in Delhi. It was reported that Baker, who has strong connections with the U.S. oil lobby and the Bush administration, met senior Indian officials in a bid to scuttle the growing Indo-Iraq cooperation, especially in the hydrocarbon sector. Major Indian companies in the private and public sectors have been given exploration rights in lucrative new oilfields. Senior Indian diplomatic sources claim that Baker, who was in office during the Gulf war, was unsuccessful in his mission.

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