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Economist Article on Iraq (24 Jan 02)

Source: The Economist, "Greed, Fear and Confusion to Saddam's Rescue", 24
January 2002

The performance could be delayed a bit but America is still writing scripts
for the exit of Saddam Hussein and his regime. This calls for ingenuity.
Iraq has been devastated by an 11-year siege, and made friendless by a
government that is widely despised, not least by its own people. But its
dictator lives on, helped by a closing of Arab ranks, and by the greed, fear
and confusion of many of his foes.

Take greed, to start with. Iraq's predicament has taken an appalling human
and economic toll at home, but many of the regional allies that America
would need in a war have profited nicely from Iraq's distress. Although the
country has vast oil reserves, sanctions have withered investment and
throttled exports, allowing competitors, such as Russia and Saudi Arabia, to
produce more oil without glutting the market. Over the past decade, Iraq has
forfeited potential revenue of some $150 billion, all to the advantage of

In addition, oil-importing neighbours, such as Jordan and Turkey, enjoy
heavily discounted energy supplies from Iraq. And the Kurds of northern
Iraq, who live under semi-autonomous UN protection, have grown dependent on
the tidy income they earn from the transit of Iraqi fuel.

All of Iraq's neighbours are agitated, sometimes fearful, about what a
change of regime might bring to the region. With Iraq's population 60% Shia
Muslim, both secular Turkey and Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia harbour fears, for
different reasons, of the emergence of a fundamentalist theocracy aligned
with Shia Iran. The Gulf monarchies would hardly be happy with a democracy
next door, either.

Some Americans have spoken of using Iraq's Kurds as a Northern Alliance-like
bridgehead to Baghdad. This also makes Turkey nervous. Having squashed its
own Kurdish minority, Turkey looks askance at the rewards America might dole
out to Kurdish collaborators. It is even more alarmed at the idea of an
independent Iraqi Kurdistan that might reignite Kurdish aspirations
elsewhere. Perhaps with this in mind, Turkey has taken to muttering about
its right to “protect” the tiny minority of ethnic Turks who live in the
Iraqi enclave. For the time being, the unprecedented freedom the Kurds
currently enjoy, with both Mr Hussein and the Turks kept at bay, may look
too precious to risk.

Few doubt that the world would be a better place without Mr Hussein, but a
big problem is that those baying for his blood have consistently failed to
explain why his removal is an urgent necessity rather than a desirable
outcome. Attempts to link the country to the al-Qaeda terrorist network have
not borne fruit, which is no surprise considering that jihad-minded
Islamists consider Mr Hussein anathema. Nor, in the region, is there much
concern about Iraq's illicit weaponry or aggressive tendencies. Kuwait,
understandably, remains apprehensive, but Iraq's other neighbours no longer
consider Iraq to be a major security threat. The argument that Mr Hussein
must go because he hates America and might one day be a danger to it, fails
to convince Iraq's neighbours of the need for an expedited change of regime.

The proposed means for bringing this change about are even less convincing
than the reasons. America does not, to date, have a legal mandate for
serious military intervention. Given the reluctance of Iraq's neighbours, it
has no place to install the 100,000 or so troops that might be necessary for
Mr Hussein's overthrow. And the Iraqi opposition remains as divided and
feeble as ever. The Bush administration's recent suspension of funding to
the most pro-American group, the Iraqi National Congress, over suspected
financial malfeasance, is a case in point.

Sensing a breathing space, Iraq has launched another of its sporadic charm
offensives. Top officials have taken to praising the Gulf monarchies, waxing
on the virtues of Arab unity, and even hinting at a future dialogue with
America. Mr Hussein himself is said to have proposed some new initiative to
Amr Moussa, when the Arab League's secretary-general visited him in Baghdad
last weekend. The visit, the first of its kind since the Gulf war, was
widely seen by Arab commentators as an attempt to bring Iraq back into the
fold at a time when a joint Arab approach is urgently needed to face the
consequences of America's anti-terrorism campaign.

Mr Hussein may be spared from this campaign, for the moment. But this does
not translate into alleviating the suffering of his people. America's
prickly mood has already led to a surge in the number of “holds” put on
contracts under the UN's oil for food programme. Some $5 billion in orders,
all but a fraction of them intended for humanitarian purposes, now languish
undelivered due to American fears that they may serve some military purpose.
Meantime, oil prices have fallen 30% since September, and the stringent new
mechanism the UN now imposes, whereby prices for Iraqi oil are set
retroactively every 15 days, is frightening off customers. The Iraqis'
meagre income, already less than a quarter of pre-Gulf war levels, looks set
to shrink even further.

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