The Guest Column

15th September 1996

Another Storm in the Desert

by Stanley Kalpage

The complex situation unfolding in northern Iraq is not one that the firing of US cruise missiles can disentangle. In fact, Bill Clinton's strategy appears to have helped Saddam Hussein to consolidate his hold on Kurdish-held territory in Iraq and to have enabled him to liquidate hundreds of those who oppose his authoritarian rule.

The US missile attack, ostensibly on military targets in southern Iraq, has created another storm in the desert. In the Desert Storm of six years ago when Iraq moved in to annex neighbouring Kuwait, President George Bush successfully mobilized a broad coalition, including Arab countries, to repel the aggression and drive Saddam Hussein's armies back to Baghdad. Bush had the backing of the United Nations, which perceived the Iraqi action as being naked aggression against a small and defenceless neighbour. Clinton is now fighting a war that Bush never finished.

The victors of Desert Storm in 1991 failed to follow through on their victory and pursue the elite Republican Guard, Saddam Hussein's crack troops. President George Bush and his Chief of Staff, Colin Powell, ended Desert Storm prematurely by allowing the Republican Guard units to escape and become the mainstay of Saddam's brutal post-war resurgence.

The storm in the desert, 1996

Today the situation is different. There is no question of aggression against another state. Saddam Hussein sent his army to deal with a conflict involving two Kurdish groups in the northern part of Iraq in response, as he says, to a request for assistance by one of the groups. The Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) of Massoud Barzani and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) led by Jalal Talabani, with support from Iran, are fighting each other. The KDP appealed to Saddam Hussein for assistance when they were attacked by the PUK, which seems to have been clandestinely supported by the CIA.

Saddam Hussein is reported to have uncovered a CIA plot some months ago to overthrow him from within the ranks of his elite Republican Guard. Strangely, the PUK which is both pro-Iran and pro-Syria is soliciting, and has received, US assistance in their fight against Saddam Hussein.

When Saddam Hussein pursued the Kurds after his defeat in Desert Storm, Bush established a protection zone for the Kurds and forbade the Iraqis from entering this zone. Now Saddam has vitiated the security zone with impunity by moving his troops in and occupying the town of Arbil before pushing on to capture Iraqi Kurdistan's biggest city, Sulaimanya. A mass refugee exodus of Kurds into Iran and Turkey has already begun.

Clinton's strategy

The United States has invoked UN Security Council Resolution 688, which in April 1991 condemned the Iraqi government's repression of minorities, as a reason for creating no - fly zones in the north and the southern parts of the country. But Resolution 688 deliberately excluded the use of military force.

clinton's strategy in Iraq has been to isolate Iraq politically and economically and to respond to provocation with military force. He has been trying to engineer a coup by members of Saddam Hussein's Battiest religious party. It will be recalled that in 1993 Clinton directed cruise missiles against Iraq because of alleged Iraqi involvement in a plot to assassinate George Bush.

Bob Dole, Clinton's Republican opponent, has criticised Clinton's strategy and questioned the effectiveness of the US cruise missile attacks on Iraq. The storm in the desert, 1996, could be a major issue in the presidential election campaign; further action by Clinton to display his mastery of the situation cannot be ruled out. Madeline Albright, US permanent representative at the United Nations, sounded boastful when she declared: Ò Saddam may have a temporary tactical advantage but we have a strategic advantage. We control the skies over much of Iraq

The Kurds

The Kurds are non-Arab Muslims with their own history, language and ethnic identity living mostly in contiguous areas of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey in a region referred to as Kurdistan (land of the Kurds). A sizeable non-contiguous Kurdish population also exist in the Khorasan region of northeastern Iran. When the Ottoman Empire was dissolved, the Kurds looked to the eventual establishment of a Kurdistan state.


Clinton has found it difficult to explain the missile attacks. In his defence Clinton has said, When you abuse your own people or threaten your neighbours you must pay a price. But not even those who wholeheartedly supported Bush in Desert Storm 1996 accept this explanation.

Only the UK, Canada, Germany and Japan, among the big powers, have voiced their favour of the American missile attack. Russia, France and China have criticised American intervention. Alexander Lebed says that the US was behaving like a bull in a China shop

The Arabs, except for Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, are openly critical of the American action although some of them may be in favour of the Iraqis being taught a lesson. A United Arab Emirates daily, al-Khaleej, has said that Ò the military campaign against Iraq is a flagrant and crude aggression against a semi-crippled state.

The flare-up in Iraq reveals the fragility of the situation in the Middle East. The Israeli - Palestinian peace talks are on hold, at least until after the US presidential election, and the prospects for peace are uncertain. An escalation of the Iraqi conflict will have negative consequences, particularly for small countries like Sri Lanka with weak economies. Sri Lanka depends on Middle East oil and on the sale of tea. The Security Council should immediately consider all the ramifications of the fresh storm in the desert and help defuse the current crisis.

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