The collapse of America’s Middle East peace efforts and the Israeli-Palestinian violence has provided a perfect opportunity for Saddam Hussein to bolster his position and the Iraqi leader has wasted no time in exploiting his advantage.
Within days of the start of the conflict, he was promising to send troops and equipment to help the Palestinians. “An end must be put to Zionism,” said the Iraqi leader, in one of several aggressive attacks on Israel. Volunteers were being signed up in Baghdad to fight the Israelis. A Republican Guard division was reportedly moved west towards the Jordanian border.
Symbolic gestures, perhaps. But they meant the Iraqi leader could again claim the mantle of the Arab world’s true defender of the Palestinian cause. It was a tactic he used with some success to appeal to the Arab masses during the 1991 Gulf War, above the heads of their leaders, who appeared powerless and divided.
Iraq’s earnings under the oil-for-food programme now bring in some $16 billion a year
It is an ironic turn of events: the peace process that collapsed at Camp David in July is the same peace process the Iraqi leader helped start in 1991 with his attempt to link a withdrawal from Kuwait with a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Bush administration furiously ruled out any link, but nonetheless set to work on initiating talks between the Israelis and Palestinians as soon as the Gulf War was over.
As the violence in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip continued through October, Saddam Hussein made further gains. When it held its emergency summit in Cairo, the Arab League felt it had no choice but to invite Iraq — the first time the country had been represented at a major Arab meeting since the Gulf War.
Saddam Hussein did not go in person — he has not left Iraq in years. But Senior Revolutionary Command Council member, Izzat Ibrahim Al Duri, stole the show with his call for a jihad, or holy war against Israel. It was another gesture and one that was never going to make it into the summit communique, but it again boosted Baghdad’s standing in the Arab world.
The Palestinian uprising is far from the only development that has helped Iraq in the latter part of 2000.
Since Baghdad re-opened its international airport in August, Arab and other nations have sent more than 40 planes there, openly challenging the 10-year-old embargo. The US and Britain — increasingly on the defensive over the sanctions — at first tried to dismiss the significance of the flights, saying they were mainly carrying humanitarian supplies, so did not contravene the ban on air traffic.
By early November, that argument was looking hollow. More than 15 aircraft arrived in just a few days, bringing in business executives and government officials from across the world for Iraq’s international trade fair. None of the flights attempted to disguise their commercial purpose. Some 1,500 companies from 45 countries attended the fair — a record.
Belatedly, Britain has taken a harder line, attacking nations backing the flights for giving support to the Iraqi regime. “Those that are instituting commercial flights and other measures have to ask themselves: Are they actually helping to end this conflict, or are they helping to perpetuate it by maintaining the present regime in power?” said Peter Hain, the British Foreign Office minister responsible for the Middle East.
It is already well over two years since any meaningful inspections were carried out
But it was noticeable that the Clinton administration did not followed the UK’s lead. In fact, its main concern in the run-up to the US presidential election appeared to be to avoid any confrontation with Iraq that might make the news.
Just days before the American public went to the polls, an Iraqi announcement that it planned to resume commercial flights, including within the northern and southern no-fly zones — which would have been seen as highly provocative in the past — elicited no protest from the US administration.
The high price of oil gives Saddam Hussein another reason to be happy. Iraq’s earnings under the oil-for-food programme now bring in some $16 billion a year. Smuggled oil brings in perhaps another $2 billion and many analysts believe this money is being used to fund new arms programmes.
Iraq is now exporting more oil than any other state except Saudi Arabia, giving it tremendous leverage at a time when the US and other western countries are desperate to keep oil prices down. Crucially, its output is now greater than the total spare production capacity of all the other oil exporters.
Just how much power Iraq now has was demonstrated in late October, when the UN — and by extension Washington — accepted without argument Baghdad’s demand that its future oil exports be paid for in Euros, not dollars. Iraq had threatened to stop pumping if the UN did not agree, which would have sent oil prices spiralling.
Oil proved to be the catalyst for another development in Iraq’s favour, a thawing in relations with its neighbour, Iran. At an OPEC summit, bilateral talks between President Mohammed Khatami and the Iraqi vice president led to Iran’s Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi visiting Baghdad in mid-October for the first time since the Iran-Iraq war.
A full normalisation in relations between the two sides is still some way off —not least because of the opposition forces harboured by both Baghdad and Teheran — but it is another sign that Iraq’s isolation is breaking down.
On 15 December, it will be two years since UN weapons inspectors were last in Iraq. It is already well over two years since any meaningful inspections were carried out. And, as on other issues to do with Iraq, the Clinton administration in its dying days seemed to be in no mood to press the inspection case. In September, the US government persuaded Hans Blix, head of the new weapons inspection body UNMOVIC, to delay announcing a date for the arms monitors to return.
With the United States so quiet, many Iraq-watchers believe Saddam Hussein will be emboldened to try other moves to break the country’s isolation from the international communtiy, and that he will also attempt to divide the US and Britain. Critics of US policy say he does not need to make much effort — with its inaction, the US administration has been doing the job for him.
Bush indicated that he wanted to take a harder line on Iraq
However, the Iraqi leader is far from off the hook. Despite his recent gains, he is a long way from being free of the shackles of the embargo — the US and Britain would immediately veto any proposal that moved towards a lifting of the sanctions. This means that revenues from Iraqi oil sales will continue to go through a UN-controlled escrow account, preventing Baghdad from spending the money directly.
Even Russia and China, who want to see the embargo lifted, have been careful in their dealings with Iraq. Russian and Chinese companies have both signed contracts with Iraq to develop certain oil fields, but to Baghdad’s annoyance, both have proved unwilling to start work as long as the sanctions remain.
Finally, despite America’s recent inaction, the Iraqi leader cannot expect an easy ride from the new US president. In the — admittedly few — campaign remarks on the subject, both presidential candidates indicated they wanted to take a harder line on Iraq.
Nonetheless, having lived through six US presidents since he became Iraq’s president in 1975, no one is betting on Saddam Hussein not seeing out a seventh.
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Copyright © IC Publications Limited 2001. All rights reserved. No part of this site may be reproduced or transmitted in any form by any means or used for any business purpose without the written consent of the publisher. Whilst every effort has been made to ensure that the information contained herein is as accurate as possible, the publisher cannot accept responsibility for any consequences arising from its use.