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Iraq: U.S.,Britain Remain Firm On Bombing Despite Criticism

  • Charles Recknagel

This weekend's U.S. and British bombing of Iraqi air defense facilities has raised a storm of criticism in several European capitals and Moscow. Critics say Washington and London are taking a tougher posture toward Baghdad just as many await new discussions of how to ease the sanctions upon Iraq on humanitarian grounds. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel looks at the debate.

Prague, 20 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. and British officials have given strong military justifications for making a concentrated attack upon air defense systems around Baghdad on Friday night.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair's office said the attacks reflected an intensification of Iraqi offensive activity which is linked to its acquisition of a new aircraft detection system.

U.S. defense officials say that Chinese workers were helping Iraq install underground fiber-optic cables as part of a state-of-the-art command-and-control system, some of which was already becoming operational.

And they say the danger from the new system to U.S. and British planes patrolling no-fly zones over northern and southern Iraq has been mounting since early January. Last month, Iraq directed more fire at planes over the southern no-fly zone than in all of last year. And pilots had reported that Iraq's ability to coordinate the fire was improving, raising the risk that eventually one of the planes might be shot down.

Neil Partrick, a regional specialist at the Royal United Services Institute in London, says this danger was the primary motivation for Washington and London to attack the sites.

"There seems to have been a genuine concern both in London and Washington about the enhanced threat to British and American pilots. And as far as I can gather, this is something which has been in the pipeline for some time, to try and do something about that by hitting command-and-control nodes, not just within the no-fly zones but indeed, as we saw, in the south of Baghdad."

But if the primary concern of Washington and London was tactical, the bombings have raised a storm of negative political reaction from several other capitals where officials saw the act as containing a political message as well.

Some of the strongest reaction has come from France. French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine said this week that he regards the attacks as running directly counter to the stated objectives of Paris, which is to ease UN sanctions on Iraq as an inducement to Baghdad to readmit weapons inspectors. Baghdad has barred the inspectors from Iraq for more than two years.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, while stopping short of direct criticism, called for a comprehensive political concept for the Gulf region rather than focusing on what he termed "military needs." And Russian President Vladimir Putin said the strikes on air defense installations were counter-productive to efforts to resolve Baghdad's standoff with the West on weapons' inspections. China, too, criticized the strikes.

Analysts say that the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush, now one month in office, indeed may have been sending a political message together with London. Notably that both intend to maintain a tough stance on Iraq even as they speak of re-energizing sanctions by making them more flexible.

Policy advisers in both capitals are discussing how to tailor the sanctions regime to more directly prevent Baghdad from obtaining military technology while easing some trade restrictions upon Iraq which have destroyed the country's civilian economy.

John Mobley of the Royal Institute for International Affairs in London, told RFE/RL's Persian Service correspondent Sharan Tabari that the message is that Washington and London have no intention of weakening their resolve to use air power to contain Iraq's military:

"It may be that there is a wish to underline the negative effects that might fall on Iraq if it does try to expand its ability to hit the patrolling planes and also if it, still more importantly, does continue with plans to develop weapons of mass destruction."

Analysts say Washington and London consider sending that message important to set a bottom line on their Iraq policy even as the stage is set for new discussions on sanctions.

Partrick says that the importance of sending that message appears to have outweighed concerns that -- in the short run -- the bombing may complicate any attempts to re-tailor sanctions and strengthen international support for them.

"I think people like [U.S. Secretary of State] Colin Powell genuinely want to see [arms] inspectors returned to Iraq and there is a difficulty here in taking a tougher military stance, given that you need the involvement of the French and Russians and others in order to smooth the path of their return, And heightening bombing activity is even less likely to encourage [Iraqi President] Saddam [Hussein] to play ball along that way. So there is a contradiction there which I don't think has yet been clearly resolved."

But Patrick says that the U.S. and Britain are likely to be encouraged by the fact that even as many European and other capitals criticized the air strikes, Iraq's neighbor Saudi Arabia supported them. That support was a reversal of Riyadh's position in late 1998, when it refused to let allied warplanes use bases in Saudi Arabia to carry out four nights of strikes -- termed Operation Desert Fox -- to punish Baghdad for refusing to cooperate on weapons inspections.

"Saudi Arabia was directly a party to this military action on Friday evening when a lot of people have been speculating that they are becoming more and more critical of the elements of the containment policy. Saudi Arabia wasn't willing to be at all involved in Operation Desert Fox and forbade the use of its bases there for that operation but it actually allowed its base to be used in this operation."

That support may help Washington and London better counter the political storm of criticism over the bombings now coming from some of their closest European allies.

Elsewhere in the region, Bahrain and Kuwait supported the strikes but NATO partner Turkey -- which is seeking to improve trade ties with Iraq under the UN oil-for-food program -- reproached the U.S. Foreign Minister Ismail Cem said Ankara hoped such attacks would not be repeated and he regretted the civilian casualties in the assault. Iraq said two civilians were killed and more than 20 injured.

Partrick says that means the U.S. and Britain are likely to view their air strikes as a success and as something not likely to have more than a temporary political cost.

"The practical motivation for hitting those targets on Friday night appears to have paid some immediate dividends in that they appear to have been very successful in hitting the sites that they did, and there has been a trouble-free flying of sorties over the weekend and since by British and American pilots in the north and south of the country."

He continues:

"And if the British and Americans do not feel it appropriate to continue to hit sites periodically, while that relatively trouble-free policing goes on, then this might actually to some extent quickly fade into the background and the concentration then may refocus on how to work with the European allies and the Russians in trying to get inspectors back in or at least to see how sanctions might be refocused."

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan is due to meet an Iraqi delegation next week in New York to discuss UN demands for the return of weapons inspectors. Baghdad has previously said it is only willing to discuss the full lifting of sanctions but new Iraqi Ambassador Mohammad al-Douri has said his government looks forward to continuing discussions. The talks are scheduled for 26 and 27 February.

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