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Iraq: Rolling Over Sanctions, Raising the Stakes

MERIP Press Information Note 77

Iraq: Rolling Over Sanctions, Raising the Stakes

Sarah Graham-Brown

November 28, 2001

(Sarah Graham-Brown, a contributing editor of Middle East Report, is author
of Sanctioning Saddam [St. Martin's Press, 1999].)

Late in the evening of November 27, the US and Russia appear to have reached
an agreement to once again roll over existing sanctions on Iraq for six
months, by which time Secretary of State Colin Powell hopes the two powers
will have agreed on a version of his proposed "smart sanctions." The
December 3 deadline to renew the UN oil for food program, under which Iraq
is allowed to sell its oil on the world market to import needed civilian
goods, brings the familiar rhetoric, mutual accusations and rejections that
have accompanied most renewals since 1997 when the program began. But this
time, the stakes are higher, and the outcome is linked to broader
uncertainties about future US policy in the Middle East.

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, reporting to the Security Council on
November 19, highlighted the UN's continuing concerns about the way the oil
for food program works. While he argues that the program did make a
difference to Iraqi citizens, cumbersome bureaucratic processes, "inordinate
delays" or refusals on the part of Iraq to grant visas and delays in
clearance of imports for the program in the northern, Kurdish-controlled
governorates have all limited the effectiveness of the humanitarian program.
At the same time, the holds placed on contract applications by the Security
Council's 661 committee (primarily at the behest of the US and the UK)
remained at an "unacceptably" high level, with a total value of over $4
billion. Interruptions by Iraq of oil sales at mid-year and lower
international oil prices have caused a shortfall in the amounts of money
available to the humanitarian program.

The September 11 attacks have altered relations internationally and within
the Middle East, but they have not necessarily produced consensus among the
Security Council's Permanent Five members and interested states in the
Middle East on what to do about Iraq. Despite the US-Russian rapprochement
on sanctions, hawks in the Bush administration still advocate military


The Security Council's likely rollover of existing sanctions within the next
few days means delaying the reintroduction of a British draft resolution to
reshape economic sanctions into so-called "smart sanctions." The proposal
was withdrawn at the last renewal of the oil for food program in June, when
Russia indicated that it would use its veto against any such resolution.

The "smart sanctions" proposals, pushed vigorously by Powell, aimed to free
up civilian trade while tightening arms controls and clamping down on
international smuggling. This resolution represented an attempt by the US
and UK to break the international impasse on Iraq policy that has continued
since the withdrawal of weapons inspectors from Iraq and Operation Desert
Fox, the ensuing bombing campaign, in December 1998. Since that time, the
international community has failed to reach consensus on any new steps,
while the US and UK have acted alone to intensify bombing in the northern
and southern no-fly zones. "Smart sanctions" were also seen as a way to
prevent Iraq from profiting from expanded trade.

The Iraqi government clearly prefers the present status quo. The policy
logjam of the last few years has allowed Iraq to consolidate its trade
relations and bring greater economic influence to bear on its neighbors.
Iraq's oil sales had reached $18 billion by 2000, up from $4 billion in
1997. Baghdad objects to the UK proposal's retention of the UN escrow
account, the 661 committee and the UN prerogative to determine to which
companies Iraq can sell its oil. Iraqi Kurdish leaders are also wary of
"smart sanctions," fearing that they would disrupt their lucrative
legitimate and illegitimate commerce, along with partners inside
government-controlled Iraq, with Turkey and other countries.

Neighboring states -- Syria, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates as well as
Jordan and Turkey -- have a growing stake in trade with Iraq and are
reluctant to accept tighter controls. Jordan and Turkey have long benefited
from the ambiguity of US and UK policy over how far to turn a blind eye to
infringements of sanctions by its "friends" in the region. Since the
critical meeting between George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin earlier in
November produced no agreement on Iraq, the Bush administration is evidently
resigned to deferring sanctions revision. However, White House spokesman Ari
Fleischer emphasized the need to define sanctions "more tightly and
narrowly" on November 27.


After September 11, Iraq is squarely in the sights of US hawks, notably
those in the Bush administration who chafe at the "unfinished business" in
Iraq since 1991. Policymakers who want a much more aggressive military
stance on Iraq see the "war on terrorism" as an opportunity to push for
"regime change," or proactive attempts to topple Saddam Hussein. For those
policymakers who are reluctant to commit to military action -- especially
given the continuing uncertainties about the outcome of the war in
Afghanistan and the fate of Osama bin Laden --  the new political climate
offered the possibility of a renewed attempt to change sanctions policy.
Short of that, rolling over the oil for food program allows the US time to
settle ongoing disputes within the administration on future military action,
without immediately jeopardizing its Arab coalition.

The Republican right in Congress and elements in the Bush administration, of
whom the best known is Undersecretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, have upped
their pressure since September to "go after" Saddam Hussein. Bush has not
closed off the option of military action against Iraq, while Powell has been
more cautious. The issue, for the administration, is less whether regime
change is a good idea than whether it is achievable and if it should be a
priority for the US at present.

By all accounts, supporters of regime change have been greatly heartened by
developments in Afghanistan. Especially in the Department of Defense,
analysts think that bombing has worked in bringing down an unwanted regime,
though less euphoria is evident in other parts of government. But recently
several other, less challenging candidates for US military action -- notably
Somalia, Yemen and Sudan -- have been named as places that harbor al-Qaeda
and related networks.


If Iraq were chosen as a target, either in the coming months or further down
the line, the US would need some form of justification, given international
skepticism and opposition. But the circumstantial evidence connecting Iraq
to al-Qaeda and/or the anthrax attacks has not convinced doubters, who so
far have included even Britain, staunchest supporter of the US. The main
evidence so far relates to hijacker Muhammad Atta's meeting in Prague with
Colonel Muhammad Khalil Ibrahim al-Ani, allegedly a senior Iraqi
intelligence officer, and the so-called "hijackers' training camp" at Salman
Pak in Iraq.

Seeing the weakness of this evidence, hawks increasingly look for
justifications in Iraq's putative weapons of mass destruction, including the
possibility that Iraq might use or might have used biological weapons.
Bush's November 26 comments on Iraq emphasized the demand that Iraq should
allow UN weapons inspectors to return to Iraq. A week ago, Undersecretary of
State John Bolton singled out Iraq, along with North Korea, Libya, Syria,
Iran and Sudan, as states developing biological weapons: "The US strongly
suspects that Iraq has taken advantage of three years of no UN inspections
to improve all phases of its offensive biological weapons program." Until
recently, public discussion of sanctions policy has made few references to
renewed inspections by UNMOVIC, the revamped UN inspectorate.

Iraq has vowed to reject any renewed effort to get the weapons inspectors of
UNMOVIC into Iraq -- a subject still under discussion in New York. It seems
likely that most policymakers in the US are skeptical of ever returning the
inspectors, but efforts to revive this issue, invoking Resolution 1284
(1999) or 687 (1991) might create more international acceptance of military

The more general claim that Saddam Hussein remains highly dangerous and evil
may also be used as a justification. National Security adviser Condoleezza
Rice stated recently: "We do not need the events of September 11 to tell us
that Saddam Hussein is a very dangerous man, a threat to his people, the
region and the US." This argument runs counter to years of US assurances
that Saddam Hussein is being "contained" and hence is unlikely to convince
most other states of the need for military action. A further possibility
would be to hope that Iraq itself takes some provocative action -- such as
advancing above the thirty-sixth parallel into areas under Kurdish control
or toward Kuwait. For the moment at least, Iraq's leadership is keeping a
low profile, undoubtedly expecting attacks. Nonetheless, Saddam Hussein has
raised again the question of relations with the three governorates under
Kurdish control.


The lack of international consensus for expanding the war to encompass Iraq
does not mean that US hawks will abandon the push for military options
altogether. The least dramatic military option would be to increase sorties
over the no-fly zones and bombing attacks, despite the proven
ineffectiveness of this strategy. If regime change is the goal, a major air
war akin to Desert Fox, with bombing focused on regime targets, has been
proposed, along with establishing bases within Iraq for elements of the
Iraqi opposition.

Some hawks have gone so far as to suggest a US ground invasion of the
southern oilfields -- reviving an Iraqi National Congress (INC) proposal
from the mid-1990s for a "no-drive zone" in southern Iraq. Clearly this
would be a high-risk strategy. Another similar approach would be to
establish a US military presence in the Kurdish-controlled north and conduct
a bombing campaign in the hope of causing the regime to collapse as the
Taliban did in Afghanistan. Incirlik airbase in southeastern Turkey would
likely launch the campaign, perhaps requiring substantial inducements to
Turkey, which might also be nervous about possible use of Iraqi Kurdish
fighters as proxies. Indeed, some Iraqi Kurds themselves are said to be
uneasy with this idea.


Whatever the pretext, if the US were to attack Iraq with the aim of getting
rid of Saddam Hussein, the concerns of the UK and others are with the impact
on alliances in the Middle East. Jordan, Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia have
already made it clear that they would find attacks on Iraq unacceptable. US
efforts to intervene in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict could also be
jeopardized by war with Iraq.

The tendency to focus on military action rather than political strategy is
very marked among the protagonists of regime change. The question that
plagued US efforts to remove Saddam Hussein since 1991 -- who would succeed
him -- has not been fully confronted. On the right, acceptance of the INC
has replaced the search for a pliable general to rule Iraq in Saddam's
stead. But the INC's track record leads many to doubt whether this uneasy
coalition could hold together, especially in the face of unpredictable
political currents that might emerge within Iraq if the Ba'thist regime

The sense of unfinished business in Iraq, which undoubtedly haunts members
of this administration to varying degrees, touches on broader issues than
the fall of Saddam Hussein. So far, September 11 has not brought any serious
rethinking of US policy in the Gulf region. Would political change in Iraq
be accompanied by a new US approach to the oil states of the Gulf, including
both Iran and Iraq? It remains to be seen whether the US will question
long-term alliances with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, given their
implicit connivance in the rise of the Taliban and al-Qaeda through both
official and unofficial financial support. Finally, the elimination of
Iraq's weapons of mass destruction in UN Security Council Resolution 687 was
linked to the goal of regional disarmament. No progress has been made in the
last decade. The US war against terrorism seems unlikely to further this

(When quoting from this PIN, please cite MERIP Press Information Note 77,
"Iraq: Rolling Over Sanctions, Raising the Stakes," by Sarah Graham-Brown,
November 28, 2001.)


For background on "smart sanctions" and their likely effect on civilian
suffering in Iraq, see MERIP Press Information Note 62, Smart Sanctions:
Rebuilding Consensus or Maintaining Conflict? and MERIP Press Information
Note 65: How the Sanctions Hurt Iraq:

Raad Alkadiri's article, "The Iraqi Klondike: Oil and Regional Trade," in
the fall 2001 issue of Middle East Report (MER 220), explains the economic
advantages to regional regimes of the current sanctions system. Read it
online at:


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