Eleven years after Saddam Hussein’s attack on Kuwait, little change in US-Iraq relations

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August 2 was the 11th anniversary of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Eleven years later, the consequences of the invasion continue to cloud the political landscape in the Middle East, as proven by Washington’s doggedness in sounding the drums of war against Baghdad.

In fact, US president George W Bush’s administration has wasted no time in demonstrating a fixation with the enemy whom many of its members had faced during the second Gulf war, when the elder George Bush was president. But to the chagrin of many in the current Bush team, it seems that what worked eleven years ago, when the US managed to bring together an international coalition of allies and supporters against Iraq, is becoming increasingly difficult today.

Despite suffering utter defeat at the hands of the US-led Gulf war coalition, the Ba’athist regime in Baghdad is still in place and appears more defiant, assertive and confident in its confrontation with the United States. For several months Iraq has even been flexing its muscles, increasing the volume and accuracy of fire against US and British warplanes enforcing ‘no-fly’ zones over northern and southern Iraq. US and British warplanes began patrolling the no-fly zones, which are not specifically included in UN Security Council resolutions that authorized the war and sanctions against Iraq, shortly after the Gulf war, ostensibly to provide a protective shield for Shi’ah Muslims in the south and a Kurdish enclave in the north from attacks by Baghdad forces. Speaking to reporters in Washington, US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld said that Iraq has “quantitatively and qualitatively” improved its air defences since a major joint US-British air strike on Iraqi radar and communications targets around Baghdad on February 16.

During the two weeks before the anniversary, Iraq provided striking evidence of its renewed assertiveness. On July 19, a US Navy E-2 Hawkeye radar surveillance aircraft reported that an Iraqi surface-to-air missile exploded near it inside Kuwaiti airspace. In the next few days came the firing of an Iraqi surface-to-air missile that nearly hit a high-flying American U-2 spy plane over southern Iraq and the sighting of an Iraqi surface-to-air missile fired at a US early-warning radar aircraft on a routine flight in Saudi airspace. The unarmed U-2 spy planes fly at over 70,000 feet, out of range of most surface-to-air missiles. That the Iraqis came close to shooting down a U-2 spy plane indicates that they have managed to increase the range of their Russian-made surface-to-air missiles with extra fuel.

On August 6, a Pentagon official announced that two Iraqi fighter jets “did violate” the no-fly zone over southern Iraq in an attempt to keep close watch on a US unmanned reconnaissance aircraft patrolling the area. The official said that it was the third time in the past several weeks that Iraqi fighter aircraft had tried to get close to the US Predator unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) flying in Iraqi airspace. These incidents suggest a change in Iraq’s tactics in confronting US and British aircraft enforcing the ‘no-fly’ zones. Iraq had tried unsuccessfully for almost three years to shoot down one of the fast-moving US or British warplanes that enforce the no-fly zones. Now Baghdad appears to have changed its strategy to take aim at slow-moving reconnaissance aircraft.

Washington is reported to be preparing a major strike against Iraq. Telltale signs have been emerging with increasing frequency over the past few weeks. On August 5, Bush’s national security adviser Condoleezza Rice candidly told CNN’s Late Edition: “Saddam Hussein is on the radar screen for the administration. The administration is working hard with a number of our friends and allies to have a policy that looks at the use of military force in a more resolute manner, and not just a manner of tit-for-tat with him everyday.” For his part, president Bush described his Iraqi counterpart as “a menace and a problem,” adding that “the United States and our allies must put the pressure on him.”

Such statements come with reports of an increase in the intensity of an ongoing policy debate within the administration over its Iraq strategy. The strategy was discussed in a recent series of high-level meetings at the White House by Bush’s national security team. Options under discussion include aggressive enforcement of the no-fly zones and a bombing campaign with an obvious set of targets, including Iraqi air defence and communications systems around Baghdad and in the northern and southern no-fly zones.

Another option under consideration is for increased support for the opposition Iraqi National Congress (INC). In May, the US state department notified Congress that it would pay up to $6 million to the INC. The money will be used mostly to fund satellite TV broadcasts into Iraq, and other similar activities. The INC is the darling of hawks in the Bush administration, such as defence secretary Rumsfeld and his deputy Paul Wolfowitz, who want to arm the INC in an effort to overthrow the Saddam regime. Yet so far no amount of material support seems able to pump life into the ineffective, fissiparous INC, which lacks solid support inside Iraq, to transform it into a strong movement like the Contras in Nicaragua.

Following press reports that the Pentagon was drawing up plans for a major air strike against Iraq’s air defence system, Baghdad demonstrated ever more defiance. “The United States and Britain will be subjected to more losses because their pursuit of aggression pushes Iraq to develop ways to defend itself,” a defiant Saddam was quoted by the official Iraqi News Agency as saying during a meeting on August 1 with a number of high-ranking military officials. Iraq’s state minister for foreign affairs, Naji Sabri, told the weekly Al-Zawra’ newspaper, “Iraq will defend itself with all its power and by all means.”

It is only natural that Saddam should appear confident, now that he has been making headway in breaking out of his diplomatic isolation. The UN Security Council in June had to shelve a joint American-British proposal for so-called “smart sanctions” designed to salvage an already failing sanctions regime against Iraq, because of Russian opposition. Saddam had temporarily turned off the spigot on the bulk of Iraqi oil in response to the “smart sanctions” proposal, threatening to withhold Iraqi oil-exports from an already-tight international oil market, until Washington backed down.

In the past few months, Baghdad has signed free-trade agreements with Syria and Egypt, both of whom had taken part in the US-led Gulf War coalition against Iraq. Iraq had previously signed contracts with a number of foreign oil companies, notably from Russia, China and France, to develop oil fields, but the deals cannot be implemented until sanctions are lifted.

The Bush administration’s pro-Israel bias on the current intifada, which has earned Washington unusually sharp criticism even from such staunch pro-US regimes as the Gulf Arab states, precludes the possibility of regional support for a military action against Iraq. As Israel continues its merciless repression of the Palestinians, even a short bombing-campaign against Iraq could result in political changes in the region that would favour Iraq. Given the widening rift between Washington and its ‘friends’ in the region, the critical support of Iraq’s neighbours, such as Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, whose air bases would be important launch pads for US and British warplanes, for a strike against Iraq is increasingly uncertain. An illustration of the battered American influence in the region was provided a few days before the invasion’s anniversary when Shaykh Muhammad al-Sabah, Kuwaiti state minister for foreign affairs, stated that the emirate was opposed to a US military strike against Iraq. Questioned on threatened US military action against Iraq, the minister replied: “No one wishes any harm to brotherly Iraq. We wish no harm to the brotherly Iraqi people.”

But even if a strike were to take place, its effectiveness in reducing Saddam’s military muscle will at best be transitory. Another barrage of Cruise missiles on Iraq would probably inflict more damage on American interests in the region than on Saddam’s government. Saddam has already demonstrated high efficiency in rebuilding bombed-out command and control centres and other military facilities. Moreover, many of Iraq’s heavy divisions, including crack Republican Guard divisions, have long taken to the tactic of dispersing their units and armoured vehicles in anticipation of an attack. A devastating strike at Saddam’s military capability necessitates knocking out these units. But hunting those units down would require a long campaign, a highly unlikely business given the yawning gap between America and its Gulf war allies, particularly Russia and France, but also Arab countries, on how to deal with Iraq. It would also require hundreds of sorties by attack aircraft, which would mean the possibility of losing American pilots.

Ultimately, a bombing campaign against Iraq will provide another example of the limited utility of America’s high-tech warfare in denting fortress Saddam. Even if the air strikes were to hit their targets with pinpoint accuracy, they are not likely to arrest the continued unravelling of Washington’s policy on Iraq. Saddam’s regime, which has weathered 11 years of war, sanctions and on-and-off bombing campaigns, will continue in power. His military apparatus will remain formidable. His vast network of secret police and informers will retain its brutal control over all aspects of Iraqi society. The Iraqi dictator and a small group of sycophants will go on living as comfortably as ever, while ordinary Iraqis pay the terrible price of the sanctions and the flights of military aggrandisement by their capricious despot and his supposed foes alike.

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