A new era for Iraq?

Saddam Hussein must decide whether to accept the U.N.'s latest arms-inspection deal, which could end sanctions against his country.

Published December 21, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

Diplomats on the U.N. Security Council have spent years in diplomatic purgatory over Iraq. But if hypocrisy were a mortal sin, then those countries that have supported U.N. sanctions against Iraq have gotten off lightly. They'd be burning in hell.

At noon last Friday, after a year of diplomatic trench warfare, the Security Council finally agreed on resolution 1284 on Iraqi sanctions and disarmament. It is the first significant change in U.N. policy toward Iraq, which has now suffered almost 10 years of the most crippling sanctions ever imposed on any country.

The resolution calls on Baghdad to accept a new monitoring and inspection regime, in return for the suspension of economic sanctions. The sanctions have now lasted the best part of a decade, and it has been a year since U.N. arms inspectors were chased out of Iraq. As a concession to Russian and Iraqi distaste for the previous inspection commission, UNSCOM, and its head, Australian diplomat Richard Butler, the new body will be known as UNMOVIC, the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection commission.

Now comes the really hard part -- persuading Saddam Hussein that this is his best chance to end the sanctions that have quietly killed more of his people than an outright military assault would have done. It does not look good so far. To begin with, Russia, China, France and Malaysia abstained on the resolution, which passed by an 11-0 vote. That makes it legal, but sends a tacit message to Iraq that there is not universal enthusiasm for the measure. which could have weakened U.N. efforts to pressure Saddam Hussein.

So far, Baghdad has repudiated the resolution. The resolution lifts the ceiling on oil sales as an inducement to Baghdad to cooperate. With its time-honored skill in making its citizenry pay the cost of its principles, Iraq is refusing to exceed the previous ceiling.

On the other hand, Saddam Hussein's regime has turned on a dime before. If he does eat his words over the resolution, he will be in good company. Resolution 1284 does actually represent a significant but under-advertised climb-down by Washington. In the past U.S. policy, as stated for example by Madeleine Albright, was to maintain sanctions until Saddam Hussein was toppled even if Iraqi civilians suffered.

In the talks on the new resolution, the United States has accepted that the purely economic sanctions will be suspended if Baghdad cooperates with the new U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission.

In past debates British and American diplomats have reiterated the terms of the original Gulf War cease-fire resolution about returning missing Kuwaiti prisoners and property, citing Iraqi non-compliance as a reason why sanctions could be maintained even if Iraq were to get a clean bill of health for destroying its weapons stockpiles.

In this resolution, the sanctions would be suspended if Iraq simply cooperates with the inspectors. The prisoners and property issue would only apply to a final formal lifting.

The new UNMOVIC would not be permitted to conduct an open-ended sifting of the sand dunes for signs of surreptitious weapon shops. It has to provide a specific work program and questions for the Iraqis to follow and answer to. For some reason, the State Department had not drawn too much attention to this aspect, and it is only since the passing of the resolution that some arms control specialists are getting upset.

It is a big concession from the United States to the rest of the world which has consistently argued that Iraq had to have "light at the end of the tunnel" as an incentive to cooperate with inspectors. It also represents a tacit admission that the air strikes the United States and the British have been mounting against Iraq for the last year have failed to dent the Baghdad regime's determination in the slightest.

Significantly, not even Iraq's best friends on the Security Council, Russia and China, want the military embargo lifted. It is clearly in nobody's interest to see dangerous chemical, biological and nuclear weapons in the hands of someone who has used them in the past, and who would certainly use them again given half a chance.

Pressure to end the economic sanctions has been building for some time. No Iraqi has been able to vote for or against Saddam Hussein, but the price of sanctions has been paid by the majority of the people who have no connection with the regime. In contrast, in Serbia, where the people voted for Milosevic during 10 years of warfare, sanctions were progressively lifted even as the casualty rate in Kosovo rose.

Opponents of sanctions sometimes forget that Iraq invaded Kuwait, and should not have done so. There is no doubt that Saddam Hussein developed and in some instances used chemical and biological weapons and tried to make nuclear weapons, nor that he has waged genocidal struggles against Shi'as and Kurds. But the multiple layers of hypocrisy surrounding the main proponents of sanctions have made it difficult for them to take the moral high ground.

Infant mortality rates in Iraq have soared since sanctions were imposed. When children reached adolescence, Saddam Hussein may well have sent them to die in useless bloody wars, but in their infancy they were well looked after. Iraq had one of the lowest infant mortality rates in the developing world before 1990.

The pain inflicted on Iraqi civilians has been too embarrassing for every country except the United States, which is genuinely unembarrassable where Arab casualties are concerned. But there are few clean hands here. The Iraqi war machine had been built up by Britain, France, Germany, Russia and the United States in the course of the long, bloody aggressive war that Baghdad waged against neighboring Iran. During that struggle the Iraqis used chemical weapons against Iranian troops, and against Kurdish dissidents, but no one in the West seemed to care.

A U.N. Commission of Inquiry set up as part of the eventual U.N.-brokered cease-fire found that Iraq had started that war, but its findings were whispered in the darkest recesses of the U.N. rather than shouted from its roof top. Most permanent members of the Security Council had actively supported Iraq and the same states were now engaged in assessing huge reparations against Baghdad. The finding could well have given Iran first dip of those if any from of equity were applied, but luckily for the West, the Iranians, in their intensely theological way, seemed more interested in a moral than a monetary vindication.

Even now, the U.N. weapons inspectors have not seen fit to reveal the lists of Western companies that supplied the technology for Iraq's weapons of mass murder. Indeed one reason the Russians want sanctions lifted very quickly is so that they can get repayment of the $6 billion that Baghdad owes them for all the weaponry that the Soviets sold them. Almost as important a reason for both the Russians and the Chinese is that their oil companies have been assured of lucrative development and exploration contracts in Iraq when the sanctions are over.

On the other hand, since the Russians are now doing unto to the Chechens what Saddam Hussein wants to do to the Kurds and Shi'as they are hardly in a position to give sermons on humanitarianism. Indeed, it has been alleged that in return for Russian support for the resolution, or failure to veto it, Washington has agreed to keep its lips even more sealed than previously about the Russian campaign in Chechnya to emulate the Serbs in Kosovo.

The French are still on the horns of a dilemma. French oil companies Elf Aquitaine and Total are chasing similar contracts, but, as the Iraqi press warned them, French support for the resolution could cost them their chance. The French socialist government does indeed oppose the sanctions on humanitarian grounds, but, after all, there is no more compelling force than a lofty principle compounded with a healthy dose of self-interest.

However, French public opposition to the new resolution was not, according to other diplomats involved in the process, replicated in the private negotiations. What we saw was daisy-chain diplomacy, in which the Chinese would follow the Russians, the French tried to pull Moscow over, and on the other side, the British would try to pull over the Americans. The lengthy chain would then be reinforced with lots of diplomatic ambiguity so that everyone could claim a victory. The French kept their oil options open with an abstention, which allowed the resolution to pass.

The British are very unhappy about sanctions privately, since they are difficult to square with the moral and ethical dimension of foreign policy that Foreign Secretary Robin Cook keeps talking about. However, their main leverage with Washington is that alone among major allies, London has pushed a hard line in public. That allowed them in other cases like Libya, to produce a workable compromise that Washington and Tripoli could both accept. It remains to be seen whether the strategy will worked this time.

Oddly enough, in the end, it may hinge on Saddam Hussein's assessment of American domestic politics. Can the White House genuinely lift sanctions during an election year when all candidates will be trying to be nice to Israel and nasty to its enemies, most notably Iraq? It will be a close call, one that may pit Democratic presidential hopes against the Iraqi people.

By Ian Williams

Ian Williams' book "Rum: A Social and Sociable History of the Real Spirit of 1776" is due in late August 2005 from Nation Books. His last book was "Deserter: Bush's War on Military Families, Veterans and His Own Past."

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