Wed, 02 Aug 2000

The Gulf war and continuing legacy of conflict

LONDON: Saddam Hussein began the Gulf War 10 years ago on Wednesday when he launched his forces across the desert into Kuwait. Officially, the war ended seven months later with the liberation of Kuwait. Yet last week British and U.S. planes were in action over northern and southern Iraq, as they have been for the past year and were the year before that.

"There is a sortie going on at the moment in the north and there is an engagement," a British commander said last week, describing how Iraqi anti-aircraft batteries locked on to a British jet.

To him it was a routine day, one of many in a conflict which is under-reported, mainly because Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, which provide the bases, do not want too much attention drawn to it.

Iraq claims that more than 300 civilians were killed in raid in the past two years. The United States and Britain, which send planes over Iraq on average every second day, insist that most of those listed as civilians were soldiers manning anti-aircraft weapons.

British and U.S. ships are also in the Gulf, trying -- largely unsuccessfully -- to police the embargo imposed on Iraq, the toughest sanctions regime in history.

What has been achieved by 10 years of war and sanctions? President Saddam, 63, is still in power, presiding over a police state with one of the worst human rights records in the world.

The 30-country coalition raised against him is falling apart as the Gulf states and others normalize their relations with Iraq. The sanctions are increasingly difficult to maintain. Iraq's borders with Jordan, Syria, Turkey and Iran are porous. Trade is increasing. Eighty countries plan to attend the Baghdad trade fair in November.

Because of the sanctions' impact on civilians, the United States and Britain face moral disapproval from a growing alliance of organizations as diverse as the Italian parliament and the Church of England.

To those with money, just about anything is available in Baghdad's shops. The rest of Iraqi society is struggling, caught between President Saddam's tyranny and the implacable attitude of the United States and Britain. Education is suffering as children drop out in droves. Income has been slashed. Iraq, which once boasted one of the best health services in the Middle East, now has one of the worst.

Children have suffered disproportionately. UNESCO estimates that half a million children have died in the past 10 years, partly as a result of malnutrition, poor sanitation and lack of medical services.

The sanctions have left Iraq's infrastructure in an "appalling" state, the program director for Save the Children in northern Iraq, Peter Maxwell, said.

"It is questionable whether the successful implementation of the UN's humanitarian program should be made so dependent upon progress made in military and security matters."

Church of England representatives were horrified by social conditions in Iraq. In a report last month they suggested that the UN should aim the arms embargo and financial sanctions at the ruling elite. "Such an alternative might be more effective than the current sanctions policy, which is unlikely to yield further political dividend without creating further suffering."

Publicly the United States, the main proponent of sanctions, remains determined to put President Saddam and his cronies on trial for war crimes. But behind the rhetoric a change is taking place. Bill Clinton and those around him no longer insist that sanctions cannot be lifted until President Saddam has gone.

Iraq's moment of truth, when it will show whether it will co- operate with the new team of UN weapons inspectors and get the sanctions suspended, is almost at hand, according to Hans Blix, the team's Swedish chairman. If it agrees to meet him,the conflict may be resolved. If it refuses, there will be another standoff with the UN.

"Towards the end of August we should be ready to open up in Iraq," Blix told the Guardian. "It is not in our mandate to harass, humiliate or provoke Iraq, and we shall not do that."

Iraq complained that the previous team (UNSCOM) had an open agenda which meant that sanctions would never be lifted. Blix said: "We want to be firm but correct. We have given Iraq a marked trail towards suspension, so there's a path they can follow."

The new team is not dominated by the west. "The complaint that UNSCOM was lopsided in a western way is correct," Blix said. Previous inspectors were not recruited by the UN, as the new team is, but seconded by their governments, and western states were more generous.

The new team is also determined to avoid the accusation that it is a tool of western intelligence or Iraqi defectors. Iraq made this claim against Scott Ritter, an American member of UNSCOM. "We will want to examine everything with a critical eye, because there is almost as much disinformation as there is information," Blix said. "UNSCOM had people with information from various groups and different channels. It's clear Ritter had channels directly, and I don't want to accept any of that. I want that to be under control."

Blix is a former director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, with long experience of checking nuclear safeguards in closed societies.

"They (Iraqis) may believe sanctions will crumble... Many ministers have been visiting Baghdad and sympathizing; but I have not seen any of them suggesting there should be a breach of sanctions."

But the Iraqi deputy foreign minister, Tariq Aziz, showed no sign of conciliation when visiting Moscow last wee. "There is nothing new regarding (UN) resolution 1284, (which set up the new team), which is still unacceptable because it does not provide any solution to the Iraqi cause."

Despite the public intransigence on both sides, there is a 50- 50 chance of a deal. In a significant change of tone, the British foreign minister Peter Hain provided the kind of assurances that those trying to achieve a deal have been looking for. "Baghdad has to understand we are serious about wanting sanctions suspended, and all that is required is for the Iraq government to allow Blix's team in," Hain said.

When that happened, details of how the suspension of sanctions might be triggered could be discussed with the Iraqis.

He denied that U.S.-British policy towards Iraq had been a failure. "The biggest achievement of the strategy is to contain Saddam Hussein. That is a very significant one. He has not invaded any country in the last ten years."

Meanwhile, the Gulf states are re-establishing diplomatic relations with Baghdad. Four -- Bahrain, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates -- have done so this year.

If a diplomatic compromise can be agreed and sanctions are lifted, Iraq, once one of the most economically successful countries, will take a long time to recover. Anoush Ehteshami, director of Middle East studies at Durham University, England said: "You can rebuild the infrastructure in 20 years or so, but not the people."

-- Guardian News Service