The U.S. is pushing for a military confrontation with Iraq, but its Arab allies flinch at the prospect. They are already unhappy about the U.S. backing Israeli atrocities in Palestinian areas.
AS the scene in West Asia gets more and more volatile, the United States is groping for a policy to counter the groundswell of public opinion against its actions in the region. The brazen violation of the human rights of Palestinians on a daily basis by Israel is condoned by the U.S. government. Vice-President Dick Cheney even justified the Israeli policy of targeting individual Palestinian leaders for assassination.
While Israel is riding roughshod over Palestinians in the occupied territories, the Bush administration is working on plans to confront Iraq militarily again. The U.S. and the United Kingdom are also upset over the failure of their plans to impose the "smart sanctions" on Iraq. The Russian threat to veto the proposals at the United Nations Security Council, coupled with the strong objections of China, forced President George Bush to backtrack on the sanctions issue.
In the second week of August, U.S. and British planes attacked areas inside southern Iraq in one of the biggest operations since the Gulf War. Fifty aircraft participated in the attack. According to the Pentagon, the planes attacked three targets: an air defence control centre that uses fibre optic communications to integrate air defences; an anti-aircraft missile site; and a long-range radar station.
Iraqi officials said that the attack was on defenceless civilians. The last big air attack on Iraq was in February this year, soon after President George Bush assumed office. The pretext given for violating Iraqi sovereignty was that Chinese technicians were helping Iraq to lay fibre optic cables to integrate its air defence. Washington justified the attacks by insisting that it was within its rights to protect the pilots flying over the 'no fly zones'.
The 'no fly zones' have no international legal sanctity. There were signs of the U.K., the only supporter of the U.S. in the Security Council on the issue, planning to opt out of the joint patrols over Iraqi skies. The French stopped participating in the patrols in 1998 and are of the view that the zones are a violation of the U.N. Charter and Iraqi sovereignty.
The 'no fly zones' in the northern part of Iraq was created in 1992 by Washington ostensibly to protect the Kurd minority population there. 'No fly zones' in the southern part followed the next year, and these were meant for the "protection" of the Shia population there. An Iraqi official said that Shia tribes played a key role in foiling Iranian attempts to capture the area during the eight-year-old Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.
But most of the U.S. and British air activity has been over southern Iraq. Iraqi officials believe this is because most of Iraqi oil lies there. They point out that when the Iraqi Army went to the north of the country at the invitation of one of the Kurdish groups in 1996 and in the process exposed the activities of Western intelligence agencies there, the U.S. and the British retaliated by hitting targets in southern Iraq.
They also say that despite U.S. claims that the aim of the 'no fly zone' is to protect the Kurds, a sizable area of northern Iraq, controlled by the two perpetually warring Kurdish factions, are the most lawless in the region. At least 5,000 Kurds have been killed in internecine strife since the creation of the 'no fly zones'.
Also, Turkey keeps on crossing into Iraqi Kurdish territory with impunity. Iraqi officials say the Kurds are an oppressed lot in Turkey, and thousands have fled to Europe as illegal immigrants. Forty Kurds were recently deported from Israel, where they had sought asylum. Northern Iraq has become a centre for drug trafficking and related crimes. When Baghdad was in total control of it, lawlessness was confined to the remote mountainous areas. They say that American and British planes patrolling the 'no fly zones' are preventing Iraq from establishing order in the area.
U.S. officials have admitted that on numerous occasions Iraqi anti-aircraft gunners came close to hitting their targets. There was even talk of winding down the operations over the 'no fly zones' as they were getting to be too risky. Recently the U.S. media reported that an Iraqi missile almost hit a U-2 spy plane, which usually flies at a height of over 70,000 feet. Iraqi officials, however, insist that they are not interested in shooting down spy planes. Their targets are the fighter planes, which have wrought havoc on Iraq's civilian infrastructure. In a speech in August, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein warned the Bush administration against sending planes over Iraqi space.
Most countries have criticised the attacks but the Iraqi leadership is shocked by the silence of the U.N. Secretary- General Kofi Annan has not condemned the raids, which were of a much larger scale than the attack in February. Iraqi officials claim that their anti-aircraft positions are highly mobile and that the raids have not been successful. They claim that they have shot down 12 jet fighters; most of the U.S. fighter planes flying over Iraq are F-15s and F-16s. There have been reports of damaged U.S. planes making emergency landings in Turkish and Saudi Arabian airfields. Many of the planes that participated in the recent attack on Iraq took off from bases in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.
There has been a noticeable hardening of rhetoric from the White House against Iraq, though administration officials admit that the U.S' wholehearted backing of Israel has severely curtailed its options to challenge Iraq. Bush has repeatedly described Saddam Hussein as a "menace" and Iraqi officials believe that the U.S. is hatching plots to eliminate their leader. Today Saddam Hussein is indisputably the most popular Arab leader in the Arab streets. It is money from beleaguered Iraq that sustains the families of martyrs in Palestine.
A full-scale U.S. attack on Iraq will only further inflame Arab opinion. Pro-U.S. regimes in the region are feeling the heat from a people impatient with the spectacle of Israel carrying out air raids on Palestinians and U.S. aiming missiles at the Iraqi people. Countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia may not be in a position to give the U.S. the backing it needs for a more "vigorous" policy against Iraq.
U.S. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice has admitted to the linkage between Palestine and Iraq. "We recognise that our relationship with our moderate Arab states affects, and is affected by, our policy in Iraq and policy in the Middle East (West Asia),"
Iraqi officials believe that the U.S. is not in a position to start hostilities on a wider scale at this juncture. With the onset of winter, the demand for oil is bound to rise. If Iraq stops oil production, there will be a major shortfall in the next five months, which cannot be offset by over-production by other countries. In December, when the demand for energy is at its peak, the Security Council will once again debate the lifting of sanctions on Iraq.
The Iraqis are confident that significant steps will be taken to lift the economic blockade on Iraq. Washington's closest allies in the region, Turkey and Jordan, were the most vociferous opponents of the "smart sanctions" proposed by the U.S. and France. The economies of these countries have been affected adversely by the sanctions on Iraq. Trade between Iraq and these countries is booming. Turkey recently signed a strategic agreement with Iraq on the construction of a bridge connecting the two countries to boost trade further.
Even New Delhi seems to have picked up enough courage to send a plane to Baghdad to protest against the 'no fly zones' and show solidarity with the people of Iraq. Two years ago Prime Minister A. B. Vajpayee had pledged to send an Indian plane but the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) evidently prevaricated. Pakistan, which was an ally of the U.S. during the Gulf War, has sent three planes to Baghdad, accompanied by high-level delegations. Thirty-eight countries have sent planes to Iraq. According to Indian officials, the government will not seek U.N. permission to go to Baghdad as Washington would prefer.
Earlier reports had suggested that New Delhi had once again backed down in the face of U.S. pressure. The Deputy Chairman of the Rajya Sabha Najma Heptullah was to lead a high-profile delegation to Baghdad in August but the MEA reportedly raised objections. According to informed sources, the new Minister of State for External Affairs, Omar Abdullah, is now being tipped to lead the delegation, provided the MEA does not have second thoughts again.