Cheney’s Middle East tour defined by Arab rulers’ fear that regime change in Iraq would set a bad precedent

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During his recent gruelling10-day, 12-country tour of the Middle East and Britain, US vice president Dick Cheney hoped to build a case for an Afghan-style war against Iraq, but unwittingly exposed Washington’s increasing isolation on Iraq. By the time he ended his tour and headed back to Washington on March 20, Cheney had been told in stop after stop that regional leaders do not see eye to eye with the US on Iraq, and that their priority is the surging violence in the Palestinian territories.

Cheney’s trip was supposed to drum up support for the “Iraq next” option in the US-led “war on terrorism”. But Cheney’s recent attempt to rally Arab support against Iraq proved harder than his previous such effort before the second Gulf war (1991), when he was US secretary of defence. The invariable message that Cheney got from Arab leaders this time round was that there would be no support for military action against Iraq while violence in Palestine continues to rage unabated. Several Arab leaders called on the US to get more involved in breathing new life into the now-defunct Palestinian track of the Middle East peace process. They also want it to bring pressure to bear on Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon to allow Palestinian National Authority president Yasser Arafat, who has been confined to the West Bank city of Ramallah for nearly four months, to attend the Arab summit in Beirut on March 27 and 28.

At the end of a brief visit to Cairo, Syrian president Bashar al-Asad and his host, Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, issued a statement on March 20 declaring their countries’ opposition to any “targeting of Iraq or any other Arab country,” and emphasizing “the need to respect Iraq’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and to end the suffering of its people within the context of international law.” This was echoed by crown prince Abdullah bin ‘Abd al-Aziz of Saudi Arabia, who reportedly told the US vice president during a meeting in Riyadh that his country remains opposed to attacking Iraq and would not allow the United States to use Saudi bases for such an operation. Likewise Shaykh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifah, crown prince of Bahrain, told Cheney bluntly at a joint press conference in Manama that Arabs are more concerned about “Israeli violence” against Palestinians than about the Iraq issue. He added that, while sharing US concerns over Iraq’s efforts to obtain weapons of mass destruction, Bahrain prefers diplomatic pressure on Iraq to accept the return of weapons-inspectors.

Other Arab countries have hinted that their opposition to a strike against Iraq has more to do with ‘timing’ than principle. Shaykh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, Kuwait’s first deputy prime minister and foreign minister, told a press conference on March 18: “We will not support this [strike] against Iraq, not because Iraq is a friend of Kuwait but because the present circumstances are not suitable.” Similarly, king Abdullah II of Jordan told CNN’s Larry King Live show on March 18: “I strongly believe that right now, action [against Iraq] would be a mistake because you don’t know the end result and with the crisis going on with the Palestinians and the Israelis, I don’t think the Middle East would handle any sort of strike.”

The Arab rulers’ consensus on US strikes against Iraq is rooted in their desire to survive. With the continuing public outrage over Israeli repression of the Palestinian intifada, any hint of Arab governments’ support for US strikes against Iraq could trigger a public uproar that they might well fail to suppress. This was the message reportedly conveyed by several Arab leaders to Cheney during his regional tour.

Turkish prime minister Bulent Ecevit has argued that widening Washington’s “war on terrorism” to include Iraq would hurt Turkey’s tottering economy. Officials in Ankara worry that another conflict with Iraq could wreck Turkey’s economy, pointing out that the country has already suffered some $30 billion in lost revenues since the second Gulf war (1991) because of the UN trade sanctions imposed on Iraq. Jordan would also bear the economic consequences of any move against Iraq, which is one of its most important trading partners. Amman and Baghdad have already signed an oil protocol for 2002, agreeing that Iraq will supply Jordan with more than 5 million tons of oil, half of which will be given free; the rest will be sold at preferential rates below market prices. If Washington gets its way and succeeds in installing a new regime in Baghdad, then Jordan might lose the preferential terms it currently enjoys. Other Arab countries, such as Egypt and Syria, will benefit from trade with Iraq if UN sanctions are lifted. A strike against Baghdad jeopardizes such opportunities.

Turkey and Saudi Arabia were staging points for US attacks on Iraq during the Gulf War. US planes continue to be based at Incirlik air base in Turkey and the Prince Sultan air base in Saudi Arabia, from where they patrol the so-called ‘no-fly’ zones over northern and southern Iraq respectively.

Arab regimes also loathe the possible removal of an incumbent regime by an outside power, which would set a dangerous precedent in a region where most rulers enjoy absolute powers, and maintain their power by repression or flawed electoral systems, or both. Besides, they fear the effects of the possibility of the fragmentation of Iraq into quarrelling ethnic and sectarian entities, with consequences that could affect the entire region.

Cheney acknowledged indirectly that the Palestinian question has blunted his effort to build a case for military action against Iraq. He told a press conference in Manama after a meeting with Shaykh Hamad bin Issa al-Khalifah, king of Bahrain, that the crisis has overshadowed other items on his tour of the region and become “a preoccupation for everyone in this part of the world.” He also denied that military action against Iraq was “imminent.” Speaking at a joint conference with Sharon in Jerusalem on March 19, Cheney said: “There has been great press speculation about possible military action against Iraq. I have said repeatedly no such decision has been made.”

While Cheney was rubbing shoulders with regional leaders, Baghdad launched a diplomatic offensive to counter his arguments that the time has come for a regime change in Iraq. High-ranking Iraqi officials shadowed Cheney, arriving in some countries (Egypt and Bahrain, for example) hours before he departed. In other countries, they beat him to his next stop, holding high-level talks and leaving before his arrival. They also visited countries not on Cheney’s itinerary: Syria, Morocco and Lebanon, for instance. During their “charm offensive” the Iraqis demonstrated a great deal of pragmatism, making efforts even to court Kuwait, which Iraq invaded in 1990. ‘Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri, the deputy chairman of the Iraqi Revolutionary Command Council, said in Bahrain that the time has come for Iraq and Kuwait to let bygones be bygones. “It runs contrary to logic, reason and pragmatism for Iraq to threaten Kuwait,” he said. “It’s in Iraq’s interest that Kuwait enjoys stability and feels secure on its borders.”

But Washington’s difficulties in selling its “Iraq next” option to other governments goes beyond the Arab world. There are few takers anywhere for Washington’s case against Iraq’s supposed weapons-of-mass-destruction threat. Even some former weapons-inspectors have expressed their profound scepticism of Washington’s line. Scott Ritter, a former US Marine Corps intelligence officer who was head of the concealment unit of the United Nations Special Commission on Iraq (UNSCOM), has raised doubts about Iraq’s ability to launch a chemical or biological attack, saying: “It was possible as early as 1997 to determine that, from a strictly qualitative standpoint, Iraq had been disarmed of weapons of mass destruction.” UNSCOM believes that it has destroyed 90 percent of the chemical and biological weapons stockpiles that Iraq amassed before the Gulf War. What little remained will have decayed to the extent that it must be unusable. Even if Iraq has managed to rebuild some of its chemical and biological weapons since the inspectors left, many are doubtful that it has the means to deliver them.

Despite the lack of international and Arab support for military action against Iraq, Washington will ensure that the issue of Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction and the return of the UN weapons-inspectors will dominate the agenda of the UN Security Council meeting on May 30. The meeting is scheduled to discuss the renewal of the ‘oil-for-food’ programme, which allows Iraq to sell a set amount of oil and use part of the proceeds, which are deposited in a UN escrow account, to buy humanitarian supplies, while the rest is used to pay indemnities for damages inflicted during the Gulf war. By shifting the UN debate to focus on Iraq’s weapons capabilities, Washington will seek to make a case for US military action against Iraq.

Averting military attack, at least for the time being, seems to depend on Baghdad’s allowing UN inspectors back into the country. There are signs that Baghdad is considering this. UN secretary-general Kofi Annan plans to meet a senior Iraqi official later this month talk about UN weapons-inspectors returning to Iraq after an absence of more than three years. Iraqi vice president Taha Yassin Ramadan said in comments to the Saudi-owned, London-based daily Asharq al-Awsat (March 18, 2002) that Baghdad may allow UN arms-inspectors back into the country if the UN draws up a list of sites and a timetable for inspections. But Washington seems to be determined to go after Baghdad. Considering the obsession of the Bush administration with toppling Saddam Hussein, allowing the inspectors back into Iraq will probably only postpone the day of reckoning. The US can always strike on the pretext that inspections reveal that Iraq did not comply with UN resolutions on disarmament.

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