15th February 1998

To put Saddam back in place

by Mervyn de Silva

“For what Nixon faced in 1972 was not theory but a reality. Britain’s withdrawal from the Gulf at the end of 1972 had been followed in April 1972 by a Friendship Treaty between Iraq and the Soviet Union, which led to the heavy supply of modern military equipment to that then most radical of Arab states. To keep Iraq from achieving hegemony in the Persian Gulf, we had either to build up American power or to strengthen local focus”.

Henry Kissinger, Years of upheaval, 1982

Sixteen years later “Go get goddam Saddam” is still the name of the game. Why? The Baath Party regime of President Saddam Hussein has refused to allow the United States to play global policeman. The United Nations yes; the United States no. The deadlock saw Russia assume the role of mediator. A more assertive Russian regional policy is one of the consequences of the new Middle-East crisis.

And the pressure on the Yeltsin administration saw the Russian President warn Washington on what Moscow interpreted as an American quest for “world hegemony”, meaning a unipolar post-Cold War world. In an interview he gave the Italian mass circulation Corriere Della Sera, Mr. Yeltsin warned that “history shows that attempts to establish global hegemony were always ‘short-lived’.”

The ailing Russian President is fully alive to the balance of forces in the Duma. Russian deputies called on President Yeltsin to defy United Nations sanctions if Washington ordered military strikes without the approval of the United Nations. Russia of course can always use its veto. The mood in the Russian Parliament was fiercely anti-American, said the entire western press in Moscow. The diplomatic corps paid special attention to the conduct of the Communist Speaker, Gennady Selezniev, widely regarded a moderate.

Perhaps more interesting was the intervention of Vladimir Zhirinovsky who leads the ultra-nationalist caucus. The Communists and the Conservative Party generally take a “much harder line” than the ruling alliance, says a Moscow-based correspondent Chrystia Freeland. This coalition is deeply concerned over what it perceives as signs of Russia’s steady decline from the Soviet-era status as a superpower. Another feature of such thinking is a special “attachment” to former Cold War allies like Iraq.

Arab Alliance

Needless to add, there is another coalition which is even more united against hostile gestures by outsiders - the Arab League. Most Arab states not only recognise old imperial masters and colonial exploiters but remember that these countries were (and remain) staunch allies of the common enemy, Israel.

This explains the poor response to the idea of air strikes against Saddam Hussein’s capital, Baghdad, and his underground shelters, and other heavily fortified buildings. US Secretary of State Madeline Albright did call on President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo, her last stop-over on the flight back to Washington. Foreign Minister Amr Moussa, speaking on the record, told foreign correspondents that, “We are not talking about anything except how to fulfil the UN Security Council resolutions, as well as giving full support to current diplomatic efforts.


But Iraq’s Permanent Representative at the United Nations, Nizar Hamdoun, was not convinced. Washington, he was certain, would not miss this chance to launch a military strike. “The talk of a diplomatic solution is only to prepare the ground, strengthen their arguments and finish military preparations”. He did add however that the Russian and French diplomatic initiatives were directed at “avoiding any military assault”. Those who think like the Iraqi Ambassador - and he is strategically located in New York to sense high-level opinion trends - are quite convinced that President Clinton desperately needs a diversion. In recent months a merciless American media has made life exceedingly difficult to this American President who in his second and final term appears to have decided that it was time to have some fun before the final curtain.

Russian diplomacy

Though President Yeltsin’s health may have restricted his direct participation in this “crisis-management” exercise, he had no cause for anxiety or guilt. His Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov was a recognised Middle-East pundit since the 1970’s. He was the Middle-East expert of the C.P.S.U. paper Pravda, based in Cairo. He must surely know that the mounting American-British pressure could lead to military intervention, its main aim, the ouster of President Saddam Hussein.

And yet they would also know that Israel under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been converted into a state of seige. Jewish and Islamic hardliners are both prepared for a bloody confrontation. The UN decision-making is now an American exercise which could be disrupted only by the concerted counter- action of Russia and France. Though Iraq’s Baath Party was proud of its secularism - I had the benefit of a long lecture on that subject from the editor of Athb Thawra, Mr. Tariq Aziz - the American-British intervention will surely receive an answer from Islamic militants.

Mr. Netanyahu’s patchwork coalition and Israeli targets could be the first. The latest formula to lower the mounting tension is the work of Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov but the US and UK may have already decided that a whiff of grapeshot is the only message that President Saddam Hussein understands.

Will he have some surprises for the seventh cavalry? Like the movies, right? - Desert Storm II?

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