When members of the Arab League gathered for an emergency summit in Cairo on October 21 to discuss “the grave situation in the Palestinian Territories and its impact on the peace process,” hopes were high among ordinary Arabs that their leaders would reflect popular opinion and at least call on the states having ties with Israel to cut them forthwith. They were to be disappointed. When Libya’s Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, reflecting that feeling, saw the draft communiqué prepared by the league’s foreign ministers, which merely said that member states that had diplomatic relations with Israel might consider severing them, he was so angered that he leaked the document to the press and left the conference.
No other leader followed his example, though–not even Izzat Ibrahim, the representative of Iraq, which is technically at war with Israel. Having been excluded from Arab League summits for ten years because of its invasion of Kuwait, Iraq could hardly afford the luxury of a walkout. As it was, taking into account the threat posed by Israel’s hawkish actions, the conference’s Egyptian host, President Hosni Mubarak–working closely with Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah–had decided to close the chapter on Arab divisions caused by Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait and invite President Saddam Hussein to the summit. Ibrahim, vice chairman of Iraq’s Revolutionary Command Council, the country’s supreme authority, served as Saddam’s stand-in.
Iraq’s re-emergence as a player in the Arab world came at a time when many countries were already moving to restore normal relations with Baghdad. In recent months, dozens of flights from several Arab capitals, as well as Paris, Moscow and New Delhi have landed at the newly reopened Saddam International Airport near Baghdad. None of them were cleared in advance with the United Nations 661 Sanctions Committee, which is charged with overseeing the embargo on Iraq. The defiance of the UN came after President Clinton’s softening toward Iraq because of the tight market in oil and its rising price. Clinton’s behavior had been forecast earlier by James Akins, former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia. “When the oil price rises above $30 a barrel,” he said, “Saddam Hussein will be treated like Mother Teresa.”
There is an indisputable link between the high price of petroleum, Iraq’s endowment with the second-largest oil reserves in the world and US policy on Saddam. With Iraq producing some 3 million barrels a day, its highest output ever, the removal of a UN ceiling on its petroleum sales in January and US oil corporations buying a third of its oil exports, Saddam is now a major player in the market. Adding to his weight is the fact that Iraq has been exempted from OPEC’s quota system because of its dire economic state.
Little wonder that Madeleine Albright announced in early September that the United States would not use force to compel Iraq to accept inspectors of the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC), formed in December under Security Council Resolution 1284, who had just finished their training. Following his testimony to the Security Council on September 2, UNMOVIC chief Hans Blix said that it was a good guess “that not much might happen before the American elections.” After all, who would be so foolhardy as to upset the dictator, who might turn off his oil tap and cause a spurt in gasoline prices during the run-up to the November 7 poll, thereby ruining Al Gore’s chances?
What started as a token defiance of a UN ban on flights to Iraq by Russia’s Vnukovo Airlines with the Kremlin’s backing in mid-August has snowballed into an international challenge to the 661 Sanctions Committee. The dozens of flights to Baghdad from Arab as well as European and Asian capitals were not cleared in advance with the sanctions committee. A large number of Arab countries have sent their aircraft, loaded with prestigious delegations of cabinet ministers, legislators, trade union leaders, businessmen, doctors, engineers, actors and entertainers–and token humanitarian aid. It is easier to name the exceptions: Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Both allow the use of their air bases by the Pentagon to enforce an air-exclusion zone in southern Iraq.
Touching on the larger issue of sanctions against Iraq, King Abdullah II of Jordan, a close US ally, said at the Arab summit, “Our [Arab] nation can no longer stand the continuation of this suffering, and our people no longer accept what is committed against the Iraqi people from the [UN] embargo.”
On the central issue before the summit, Izzat Ibrahim was hawkish: “Iraq is calling [for] and working to liberate Palestine through jihad because only jihad is capable of liberating Palestine and other Arab lands [from Israel].” To show that Iraq’s sympathy meant more than words, Saddam immediately dispatched a convoy of forty trucks loaded with food and medicine to the Palestinian territories via Amman. This kind of gesture should boost Saddam’s already high standing among young Palestinians and accelerate his rehabilitation among Arabs, creating a symbiosis between him and the Arab street.