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.)