Dilip Hiro is the author of Sharing the Promised Land: A Tale of Israelis and Palestinians (Interlink), Between Marx and Muhammad: The Changing Face of Central Asia (HarperCollins), Neighbors, Not Friends: Iraq and Iran After the Gulf Wars (Routledge), War Without End: Rise of Islamist Terrorism and the Global Response (also Routledge), Iraq: In the Eye of the Storm (Nation Books), Secrets and Lies: Operation "Iraqi Freedom" and After, The Iranian Labyrinth: Journeys Through Theocratic Iran and its Furies, Blood of the Earth: The Battle for the World’s Vanishing Oil Resources and, most recently, After Empire: The Birth of a Multipolar World (all Nation Books).
With the drumbeat for war on Iraq growing louder in Washington by the day, the latest United States-backed Iraqi opposition group--the Iraqi Military Alliance--was established with great fanfare in London in mid-July by some eighty former Iraqi officers. If this was an attempt at priming the Iraqi opposition pump as a prelude to overthrowing the regime of Saddam Hussein, holding a much-hyped press conference seemed an odd way to proceed.
An incisive comment came from an independent-minded Iraqi lawyer. "The American policy-makers believe that if you scare Saddam and threaten him, he will yield," he said. "They think this high profile meeting in London will ruffle his feathers. Also, it gives a military dimension to the predominantly civilian Iraqi National Congress." But Saddam does not scare so easily. In his televised address to the nation on July 17, he asserted that "evil tyrants and oppressors" would not be able to overthrow him and his regime. "You will never defeat me this time," he declared.
Behind this bravado lies Iraq's well-tailored policy of reconciliation with its neighbors, which its foreign minister, Naji Sabri, has been following doggedly for the past several months. A Christian and former professor of English literature at Baghdad University, the smooth and sophisticated Sabri started the year with a groundbreaking trip to Teheran to resolve the prisoners-of-war exchange issue with Iran. The following month he flew to Ankara, where he expressed flexibility on renewed UN inspections. At the Arab summit in Beirut in March, Iraq recognized Kuwait's border and promised to discuss the issue of Kuwaiti POWs. "We have instructed our media to avoid any references which may annoy the State of Kuwait," said Sabri after the summit. Since then he has sought the assistance of his Qatari and Omani counterparts to improve Baghdad's relations with Kuwait.
The strategy seems to be paying off. Sheikh Jaber Mubarak al Sabah, the Kuwaiti defense minister, said in late July that his country would approve a US attack on Iraq only if it is done under the auspices of the United Nations. "Kuwait does not support threats to strike or launch an attack against Iraq." Baghdad's relations with Saudi Arabia have improved, too. Riyadh has reopened its border with Iraq at Arar, and Saudi companies are doing business in Iraq within the framework of the UN oil-for-food scheme. The desert kingdom has refused to allow the Pentagon use of the Prince Sultan air base at Al Kharj in case of war against Iraq.
Hence the US pressure on Jordan to allow its air bases to be used instead--a prospect that sent a tearful King Abdullah rushing to a European leader to complain about the US plan to attack Iraq from his kingdom at a time when Arab frustration with the stalemate on the Israeli-Palestinian front is rising by the day. (That was before Israel's widely condemned dropping of a one-ton bomb in Gaza, killing fifteen and injuring 160.)
King Abdullah's European interlocutor was certainly sympathetic to the monarch's plight. All the European countries except Britain are urging Washington to construct a coalition for Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, not for warmaking in Iraq. In this effort they have the backing of Turkey, a neighbor of Iraq and a NATO member that allows the use of its Incirlik air base by US and British warplanes monitoring the northern Iraqi no-fly zone.
In his July 21 interview on state television, Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit said the United States should consider alternatives to military action against Baghdad. "There are other measures to deter the Iraqi regime from being a threat to the region," he said. "Iraq is...so developed technologically and economically despite the embargo that it cannot be compared to Afghanistan or Vietnam." What is more, Ecevit warned that it would not be possible for America to "get out easily" from Iraq. Such a prospect was outlined by Sir Peter de la Billiere, who commanded the British troops in the 1991 Gulf War. Discussing the prospect of US, British and French troops capturing Baghdad, he wrote in his Storm Command: A Personal Account of the Gulf War, "Saddam Hussein...would have slipped away into the desert and organized a guerrilla movement.... We would then have found ourselves with the task of trying to run a country shattered by war, which at the best of times is deeply split into factions.... Either we would have to set up a puppet government or withdraw ignominiously without a proper regime in power."
Little wonder that among the questions European and Turkish leaders are asking the Bush Administration now is: Is America willing to stay in Iraq for ten years to safeguard the post-Saddam regime from subversion--and possibly an attack--by an alliance of Iran and Syria, which have been strategic allies since 1980?
On July 23 Iran's President, Muhammad Khatami, declared that Washington did not have the right to choose the leadership for the Iraqi people. Noting that war against Iraq was being promoted in Washington on an unprecedented scale, he warned that military action against Iraq by the Pentagon could seriously threaten regional stability. Iranian leaders reckon that once the Bush Administration has overthrown Saddam, it will target Iran for regime change--fears fueled by its late-July announcement that it is officially ending its policy of "playing factions" in Iran in favor of direct appeals to the Iranian people. Meanwhile, a bipartisan group of lawmakers in Congress called for a resolution in favor of regime change in Iran. Mainstream Iranian politicians would rather forge an alliance with Baghdad now than wait for the ax to fall on them in the post-Saddam period.
US war plans clearly pose numerous dangers to the region. But whether that will deter the hawks in Washington from pressing home their strategy of ousting Saddam by force remains to be seen.
It is now widely acknowledged that what sparked the most devastating attack on the American mainland in history was the continued presence of US troops on Saudi Arabian soil after the Gulf War--which, in 1991, prompted the disaffection of Osama bin Laden, until then part of the Saudi political/business establishment. With US troops, warplanes and other military hardware stationed in all the gulf Arab monarchies, and the Pentagon's Fifth Fleet headquartered in the island state of Bahrain, why does the United States need to maintain a military presence on Saudi soil?
It would be naïve to expect a straight answer from US authorities, so one has to make do with the explanations offered recently by unnamed Pentagon officials, especially the one "who has worked intimately with Saudi Arabia" and who told the Washington Post in mid-January that the United States promised to withdraw its contingent from the Saudi kingdom "when the job is done." As the Post reported, "Saudis interpreted that to mean the job of expelling Iraq from Kuwait [in 1990-91], but many US officials think the job remains undone as long as Saddam Hussein remains in power in Baghdad."
The official was referring to the written promise from President Bush Senior, secured by King Fahd before he invited US troops to his country, in August 1990, after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. So, out goes the explanation dished up routinely by the State Department and the Pentagon for many years--that the troops and warplanes are based inside Saudi Arabia to monitor the US/UK-imposed no-fly zone in southern Iraq, implying that the discontinuation of this zone would end the Pentagon's presence in the desert kingdom. Secretary of State Colin Powell made the logic even more explicit in a January 20 Fox-TV interview quoted in the International Herald Tribune: The US military presence in Saudi Arabia, he said, "might end only when the world turned into 'the kind of place we dreamed of. They [US forces] serve a useful purpose there as a deterrent to Saddam Hussein, but beyond that as a symbol.'"
Fahd extracted Bush Senior's promise in 1990 in order to overcome stiff opposition from ranking clerics, who provide legitimacy to the rule of the House of Saud. The presence of US troops under their own flag in Saudi Arabia violates a cardinal Islamic principle that the kingdom has enforced since its inception in 1932, treating all Saudi territory as a mosque, based on Mohammed's deathbed injunction: "Let there be no two religions in Arabia." Clearly King Fahd was apprehensive about US troops in his kingdom acting as an independent force to achieve their anti-Iraq objective without regard for its impact on Saudi interests or sovereignty. Twelve years on, he and Crown Prince Abdullah, the de facto ruler, find Washington trying to impose its interpretation of what "the job" entails and when it is "done."
America's insistence on imposing its will on Riyadh is fueling the anger many Saudis feel toward Washington, especially regarding its unquestioned support for Israel in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which generates sympathy for Osama bin Laden. A secret survey in mid-October by the kingdom's intelligence agency, Istikhabart, showed that 95 percent of educated Saudis in the 25-to-41 age group supported "bin Laden's cause." Given this sociopolitical fact, it seems unlikely that the regime in Riyadh can continue its tight military links with Washington. The writing is on the wall. "Since September 11 America has lost the Saudi people," said Dr. Abdulrahman al-Zamil, chairman of the al-Zamil business group. "America tried to convince people that they are here to protect the [Saudi] regime, and that is total garbage. Their presence is a liability to the Saudi government." The airing of such a view by an affluent businessman, who is also a member of the consultative council appointed by the monarch, could have happened only with the connivance of the royal family.
Perceiving widespread opposition to the presence of US troops in the kingdom, the top decision-makers in Riyadh may have decided to raise the previously taboo issue in public, if only to signal to their subjects that their views are being taken into account. However, along with their American counterparts, they face a dilemma: How can US military presence in the kingdom be curtailed or ended without appearing to reward bin Laden? There is no easy way out.