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Special Assignment

20th December 1998

Lankans explode over bombs on Iraq

By Nilika de Silva, Ayesha Rafiq and Faraza Farook

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While the govern-ment of Sri Lanka diplomatically expressed concern over the US-British bombardment of Baghdad, other parties and independent political experts slammed the attack as shocking, shameful and scandalous.

Predictably, Muslim parties, including the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, and Minister Alavi Moulana were outraged over the attack, especially because they coincided with the beginning of the Ramadhan fast.

Other parties especially on the leftwing, were equally forthright with the JVP describing the Clinton administration as killers suffering from military mania.

In economic terms, it was too early to assess any drastic impact but tea and shipping circles along with West Asian job agencies expressed concern regarding serious consequences if the attacks continued.

Speculation that the attack was launched to divert the attention of the American public from and influence the US House proceedings on the impeachment process is also gaining currency.

International Relations expert Dr. Pakiasothy Saravanamuttu who heads the think tank Centre for Policy Alternatives said the attack was awful and unnecessary.

"They are shameful in the context of what is happening in the domestic political scene of the United States. Is it mere coincidence that this occurred at a time when the President is facing impeachment? This is the most shabby kind of politics," he said.

Veteran diplomat and director general of the Bandaranaike International Diplomatic Training Institute, Dr. Vernon Mendis, also agreed that the attack was unwarranted and described it as very unfortunate. He said the resort to arms was morally wrong."

Quite apart from the rights and wrongs, the resort to arms cannot be justified. For Iraq, a country which is struggling to ward off the effects of sanctions, it is very tragic,." Dr. Mendis said adding that the human suffering must be given consideration before any attack

Bradman Weerakoon, International Relations Advisor to President Premadasa, said it was unfortunate that this action had given rise to the perception that it has been motivated by a domestic issue.

"The attack was greatly to be regretted. I would have expected that some more time would have been given for Iraq to comply with the UN resolutions," he said.

Mr. Weerakoon also said that the United Nations should be the sole authority in determining any action against states.

"Sri Lanka should take up a principled strong position and oppose the action," he said.

When Ministers gathered for their weekly meeting on Thursday, the attack on Iraq figured prominently.

Minister M. H. M. Ashraff and Alavi Moulana told President Kumaratunga that Sri Lanka should condemn the attack. The President told the ministers not to issue any statement arbitrarily and assured them that the Foreign Ministry would be entrusted with that task.

The Foreign Ministry in a statement issued on Thursday night expressed concern about the attack and stressed the importance of using 'diplomacy and negotiations' to resolve international disputes.

The statement read:

"The Government and the people of Sri Lanka have been gravely concerned about the turn of events in Iraq and the air strike that commenced on 16th December, 1998.

"We regret very much that efforts of the Secretary-General of the United Nations have not been successful in resolving the crisis in Iraq. Any action towards a settlement of all the complex issues in respect of Iraq should be in accordance with the relevant UN resolutions and on the basis of the principles of the United Nations Charter and not through unilateral action.

Sri Lanka has consistently opposed the use of force in the resolution of international disputes.

'The people of Sri Lanka who have historic ties with the people of Iraq are particularly concerned about the grave prospect of civilian casualties in Iraq. The innocent people of Iraq must not become victims in this conflict. The Government of Sri Lanka urges the greatest restraint in the situation and a return to diplomacy and negotiations through which Iraq could fulfil its obligations and the international community could move decisively towards the review and removal of sanctions placed on that country."

Meanwhile the attack on Iraq dominated Friday prayer sermons in most mosques. Heavy police presence was seen outside mosques in Colombo.

Moulavi Mubarak delivering the sermon at the Kollupitiya Jumma mosque, asked the wisdom behind continuous harassment of Muslim countries by America. He asked why the world human rights lobbies were impotent when it comes to gross violations of rights of Muslims in Iraq and elsewhere.

He said no country could take arbitrary action against another person or country, no matter how bad he or it is.

The Moulavi urged the congregation to pray for world peace in the spirit of repelling evil with something good.

Muslim political parties too were vociferous in their condemnation of the attack which continued for three nights till dawn on Saturday. Several Muslim organisations are also planning demonstrations to protest against what they call the West's aggression on Islam and what Iraq described as attacks by agents of Satan.

The demonstrations will take place after Jumma prayers on Friday.

Sri Lanka Muslim Congress spokesman Abul Kalam said the party strongly condemned the attack on Iraq and described it as a gross violation of the UN Charter".

He said the party's youth wing members will join a peace march.

Muslim United Liberation Front (MULF) leader Abdul Marsook said the attack was an aggression on the entire Muslim community.

"The government of Sri Lanka should take a firm decision and show that we are with Iraq. It is scandalous for the US and Britain to launch such an attack."

Left parties were equally strong in their condemnation.

The Communist Party in a statement said:

"Military actions cannot be condoned as a means of settling international disputes. However time consuming and painstaking it may be, international disputes have to be resolved through mutual consultations and negotiations,"

Hardships inflicted on innocert civilians owing to international conflicts should be condemned, the party said. It urged both the US and Britain to stop military action on Iraq and called upon the United Nations alone to handle the sitiation.

The more radical JVP condemning the attack said: "While preaching to the world the importance of safeguarding human rights, the United States has fallen to the position of mad killers, and it is clear they will not hesitate to use this military mania on any independent sovereign state."

It said that to help safeguard the independence of Iraq and to halt immediately interferences by the United States, it is the responsibility of all sovereign and independent countries to join together and oppose such action.

Minister Alavi Moulana in a statement appealed to the United Nations that it takes immediate action to stop the military attacks against Iraq.

"When the Islamic community is about to observe the Ramadhan Fast, the action taken by America and Britain cannot be condoned. It should be outrightly condemned," he said.

The Sunday Times also spoke to some foreign employment agents to find out how the job market is affected by the crisis in the Gulf region. Most of the agents felt that it was too early to comment. They said the situation would improve and the present crisis would not affect other West Asian countries where a large number of Sri Lanka migrant workers are employed.

W.P.M. Aponso President of the Association of Licensed Foreign Employment Agencies, said unlike during the Gulf war when many Sri Lankans returned from West Asia, this time the situation was not so tense.

"The situation has neither stopped people from going to the Middle East nor made them return," Mr. Aeons said.

The Sri Lanka Foreign Employment Bureau (FEB) has set up a special desk to register details of those who have gone for employment in Iraq. It has appealed to the public to give details of Sri Lankans employed there, though no Lankans have been sent to Iraq through any registered agency for the past three years.

The FEB says it would bring down any Sri Lankan employees in Iraq if it was provided with necessary information.

Shipping circles were also concerned about the situation because they fear a resultant increase in freight costs and special insurance cover.

Nalin Peiris, Managing Director of Ceyline Shipping Ltd., said under the protection and indemnity insurance cover, ships entering war zones had to pay high premia.

"Another factor is that charter parties have certain areas called safe ports. Since the attacks have made Iraqi ports unsafe, the charter party may refuse to pay the shipping agent the fee agreed on, and the terms will have to be renegotiated," he said.

American President Lines (Lanka) Managing director I.C. Claxton said shipping circles would be affected not only because of war premiums but also because certain restrictions on vessels by neighbouring ports.

Kuwait has already placed certain restrictions on vessels, he said. "Our vessel had to leave some cargo behind to get out before the port was closed," he said.

Mr. Claxton said that as there were very few precedents, it was difficult to say how exporters would react, but that the Bill of Lading had a clause which stipulated that in a war situation, vessels could deviate from the route without incurring any penalty.

Trade sources also expressed concern saying the crisis might affect Sri Lanka's tea trade which acquired recently direct exports to Iraq under the UN oil for food programme.

Tea Board Director General R. Maligaspe said that while the short terms effects would be marginal, if the war was to go on for much longer, the tea trade would be adversely affected.

He said a war situation could aggravate the financial crisis in West Asia where countries were devaluing their currencies.

All this would mean a fall in tea and other exports.

The war situation is not likely affect the imports of Petroleum products, said S. Unamboowe, Marketing Manager of Ceylon Petroleum Corporation. He said in the short term, there would be no impact on the import of oil and petroleum, as Sri Lanka did not import many petroleum products from Iraq. CPC director A. Gunasekera said the situation was being studied closely and action would be taken based on a report.

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