An agenda for aggression

Print edition : August 03, 2002

The United States prepares a plan for a new military adventure in the Gulf region to overthrow Saddam Hussein, but not all its allies welcome an offensive.

UNITED STATES President George W. Bush has not been coy about his desire to implement his father's unfinished agenda: overthrowing the Saddam Hussein government in Iraq. Bush said in July that Washington would use all tools at its disposal to dislodge Saddam Hussein. Subsequently, a leading U.S. newspaper published details of a military plan prepared by the Pentagon to invade Iraq, making it amply clear that psychological warfare is being waged against the Iraqis.

On a Baghdad street, life goes on. President Saddam Hussein is an iconic presence in much of the country.-BASSIGNAC GILLES/GAMMA

Arab diplomats point out that the American propaganda blitz constantly emphasises that their aim is only to dislodge Saddam Hussein, hoping that this would weaken the unity of the Iraqi people. There is also the wishful thinking that the psychological warfare would encourage a military coup in Baghdad. Western military analysts discount the possibility of a "regime change" as a consequence of any American military action. The hawks running the Bush administration's foreign policy think that laser guided munitions are sufficient to effect a bloodless military victory in Iraq. More realistic advisers, such as General Tommy Franks, the commander of the U.S. forces in the Gulf, is of the view that the only way to defeat Iraq is to wage a war of the proportions of the Gulf War.

Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has told the U.S. media that he wants the official who leaked out the details of the military plan, titled "CentCom Courses of Action", to be exposed and punished. The Pentagon document envisages an air, land and sea operation against Iraq from the north, the south and the west, involving 250,000 U.S. troops. The countries that have been apportioned a major role in the operations are Kuwait, Turkey, Oman and Qatar, although none of them has been formally informed about this by the Bush administration. Rumsfeld was on a well-publicised visit to Kuwait and Qatar recently to inspect the U.S. bases there. The more hawkish Deputy Secretary of Defence, Paul Wolfowitz, was in Turkey in the fourth week of July to discuss military cooperation in the event of an invasion.

George Bush Sr. assembled an international coalition against Iraq during the Gulf War. Yet he could not dislodge Saddam Hussein. As an Arab diplomat pointed out, the U.S. and its allies pounded Iraq mercilessly from the air for 40 days and nights. But after less than four days of fighting on the ground, the U.S. declared a ceasefire. The U.S. forces could move into Iraq from a number of neighbouring countries as America had the sanction of the international community for the military action.

This is not the case today. Countries which were the staunchest allies of the U.S. then are now opposed to an invasion of Iraq. Kuwait, where the U.S. has several military bases, has announced that it is against a new military adventure in the Gulf without the sanction of the United Nations. Saudi Arabia has also made it clear that it is against a new attack. The level of popular resentment in Saudi Arabia against the presence of U.S. bases in the country is high. The Saudi government has asked the U.S. to vacate its bases. The Bush administration has evidently chosen Qatar for basing facilities.

The Turkish leadership too has warned the U.S. against any big military offensive against Iraq. The tottering government led by Bulent Ecevit is not in a position to give the U.S. a carte blanche. General elections are scheduled to be held by the end of the year in Turkey and opinion polls put the Islamist party way ahead of others. The Islamists are unlikely to support the U.S. military policies in the region. Hence the Bush administration's desire to install Tansu Ciller in place of the ailing Ecevit. Ciller, who had an earlier stint as Prime Minister, has indicated that she would do its bidding.

However, any government in Istanbul will have to think twice before allowing the country to be used as a launching pad for a new American offensive against Iraq. Turkey, along with Jordan, profits handsomely from any unofficial trade with Iraq. As an immediate consequence of the Gulf War, Turkey had lost more than $3 billion in revenue owing to the closure of the oil pipeline from Iraq. This loss has been more than made up in the last couple of years by the cross-border trade.

The Jordanian economy, especially in these hard times, is dependent to a large extent on cheap Iraqi oil. Washington has not objected to the unofficial barter trade between Iraq and the two pro-Western governments in the region. The Turkish establishment is also aware that the U.S. could encourage Iraqi Kurds to press for an independent state. There are also reports that Turkey would be given sizable chunks of territory in northern Iraq if and when the present government in Baghdad is overthrown. Turkey has made territorial claims on parts of Iraq, especially the oil-producing areas.

Iran, viewed as a traditional rival of Iraq in the region, has also condemned the U.S. military plans for the region. Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, during a recent visit to Malaysia, said that it was up to the people of Iraq to change their government. "Any interference in the domestic affairs of Iraq would be against the interests of the Iraqi people, the interests of the countries in the region, and it would be against peace and tranquility of the region and the world," Khatami told the media. The King of Jordan and the Emir of Dubai, at a recent meeting, reiterated their objections to any military action against Iraq.

The U.S.proxies in the region, such as the two Kurdish groups that control a small area of northern Iraq with U.S. help, are alarmed at the signals coming from Washington. They are aware that the Iraqi army is capable of crushing them in no time if a war breaks out. Both Massoud Barzani, the head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, and Jalal Talabani of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, have told U.S. officials that they are against any military action. Barzani and Talabani were reportedly flown to a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) base in the U.S. and asked to allow America to reestablish a base in northern Iraq. The CIA had left the base it had set up in the mid-1990s, when Iraqi forces threatened to retake the whole of northern Iraq.

At a hospital in the Iraqi port city of Basra. The U.S.-led embargo against Iraq has over the past decade and more deprived ordinary Iraqis of essential medicines and other basic supplies.-QUIDU NOEL/GAMMA

Meanwhile, U.S. Congress has also got into the act. With President Bush's popularity ratings falling and his presidency being engulfed by financial scandals, U.S. lawmakers have asked for the plans on Iraq to be made known to them. Many Congressmen, among them Republicans, said that they were concerned at the Bush administration's plans to commit a large number of troops without consulting them. The Democrats have demanded that the administration seek congressional approval before launching a new war.

The traditional allies of Washington are not happy either, the sole exceptions, of course, being British Prime Minister Tony Blair and the right wing Australian government. Blair, however, has come in for strong domestic criticism for his stand on Iraq. A significant number of Labour Members of Parliament have questioned his unqualified support for the U.S. plans for West Asia. The Europeans are already angry with the U.S.' handling of the Palestinian issue. They are aware that the Arab street opinion is inflamed. A U.S.-led invasion of Iraq is the last thing they want at this juncture.

As for the Iraqi leadership, it is ready to face any eventuality. A top diplomat from an Arab country told this correspondent that the worst he expected was yet another wave of "cowardly" aerial attacks with laser guided bombs. He said that recent military events would bear him out. The U.S. did not move in with its troops to clinch a decisive military victory during the Gulf War or for that matter in the war on Yugoslavia. In both instances, it inflicted tremendous damage to the infrastructure of the two countries through aerial bombing.

The diplomat said that the U.S. military establishment knew that the Iraqi army was capable of putting up a brave fight. He said that the Americans, still suffered from the Vietnam syndrome, and would not be prepared to receive "body bags" back home. He pointed out that the U.S. forces had already started pulling out of Afghanistan. An Afghan-style military operation employing U.S. air support and local rebels was apparently envisaged. But the CIA-sponsored Iraqi groups are even more fractious and corrupt than the Afghan warlords. In June, General (retd) Wayne Downing, a leading proponent of an Afghan style war in Iraq, quit his White House post.

Saddam Hussein, in a speech delivered on the occasion of Iraqi National Day in the third week of July, said that the U.S. would "never" be able to defeat his country. "Never! Even if you come together from all over the world, and invite all the devils as well to stand by you," said a determined Saddam.

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