Iraq Woos Its Neighbors

Iraq Woos Its Neighbors

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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.

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