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The Economist on "the sad, muddled stand-off" over Iraq

The Economist (November 6, page 47) leads its International section with the
following report.
Sanctions against Iraq no longer have a clear purpose, the Iraqi opposition
is more muddle than threat, Saddam Hussein is sitting quite comfortably 
(New York) 

THERE were two costume parties in the Sheraton Manhattan hotel in New York
on October 31st. On one side of a corridor, children dressed as skeletons
and pirates and witches competed for party favours; on the other, Arab
chieftains in flowing robes and baggy-trousered Kurds performed for prizes
from the American government. 

For the first time since 1992, the Iraqi National Congress (INC), an
umbrella group for the Iraqi opposition, convened a mass assembly to show
its strength and make a bid for American patronage. American officials and
congressmen duly queued up to pledge support. But the idea that the INC-or
for that matter, the continuing negotiations in the UN Security
Council-would bring an end to the painful nine-year stand-off with Iraq
seemed as fantastical as the children's outfits across the hall. 

For one thing, American support for the opposition is more bark than bite.
Last year, after much congressional prodding, President Bill Clinton signed
a law offering $97m-worth of training and equipment to the opposition. But
it took the government a year to cough up anything at all, and even then it
provided only $5m-worth of office equipment and coaching in
"civilian-military relations", rather than the hoped-for arms and military
training. American officials insist that certain tasks-such as uniting the
multitude of different opposition factions and agreeing on a vision of
Iraq's future-must be completed before any practical effort can be made to
dislodge President Saddam Hussein. The trouble is that such tasks are
virtually impossible. 

Thomas Pickering, a senior State Department official, did promise further
American bombing raids if there were "major" Iraqi offensives against Shia
rebels in southern Iraq, but his wording left plenty of wiggle room. Even
the INC's allies in Congress seem to view the group less as a future
government of Iraq than as a ready-to-hand means of spooking Mr Hussein. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given such tepid American support, the INC has a
hard time making itself look serious. The main Shia opposition groups, who
mount a more credible resistance operation inside Iraq than any of their
rivals, have refused to join. Although the powerful Kurdish militias that
run an autonomous zone in northern Iraq showed up in New York, they made no
secret of their scepticism. They refused to let the meeting take place in
their territory, their representatives said, because America refused to
guarantee security. If America is not willing to stick its neck out, they
argue, why should they? Many of Mr Hussein's internal and external enemies
share their misgivings. 

Meanwhile, America seems to be making only marginal progress in the Security
Council. It is trying to reinstate the UN arms-control regime from which
Iraq withdrew in protest at an American and British bombing campaign last
December. A recent British and Dutch proposal, supported by the Americans,
insists that the Iraqis provide a more thorough account of their nastier
weapons programmes, and allow international inspectors to return to Iraq. In
return, it envisages a slight loosening of the economic embargo. 

Until now, Russia, Iraq's closest ally on the council, has been demanding
the suspension of sanctions as the price of restarting inspections. Although
the Americans and British have won over much of the council, and talk
excitedly of putting a new resolution to the vote by late November, the
veto-wielding Russians have not yet given in. Even if they eventually do,
Iraq has said that it will never allow the inspections to resume on
American-British terms-and, indeed, there is no reason to believe that a new
inspection scheme would be more successful than its predecessor was in its
last controversial years. So, in all likelihood, the impasse will drag
on-and so will sanctions. 

But the sanctions regime, too, is in need of repair. Keeping things as they
are is not only cruel to the Iraqi people but also props up their cruel
dictator. Since 1996, in an attempt to mitigate the crushing effects of
sanctions on ordinary Iraqis, the Security Council has allowed Iraq to sell
some oil to pay for humanitarian supplies. But Iraq's debilitated oil
industry could not produce enough oil to cover the cost of even basic food
and medicine, while its infrastructure is too run-down to allow proper
distribution and storage of what little could be bought. So, gradually,
oil-for-food's scope has been increased to cover repairs to oil facilities,
power and water-treatment plants, and agricultural equipment. Medicine now
ranks only fifth on the list of expenditure. 

As the aims of the oil-for-food programme get more technical, so do the
imports needed to meet them. This increasingly conflicts with the
determination to prevent Iraq from laying its hands on any technology that
could conceivably be put to military use. Under oil-for-food's rules,
Security Council members can veto any contract they deem suspect. The
Americans and British have put contracts worth more than $600m on hold, to
the consternation of UN officials. Technology as inoffensive as a Pentium II
processor, an outdated computer chip, is considered too dangerous to allow
into Iraqi hands. But, making nonsense of this ultra-caution, there is
nothing to prevent an Iraqi driving to Jordan, buying a carful of newer
computers and bringing them home with him. 

The longer that sanctions on Iraqi oil sales continue, the more damaged, and
damaging, the system looks. The Security Council brought in oil-for-food in
an effort to fix the embargo's manifest shortcomings. Now the repair job
itself needs mending. Yet further reforms to oil-for-food are caught up in
the broader Security Council impasse.The sad, muddled stand-off could haunt
the world for several Halloweens to come. 
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