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2001 In Review: Iraq -- Washington-Baghdad Tensions Heighten Amid War On Terror

  • Charles Recknagel

The year 2001 saw Baghdad continue to refuse to re-admit UN weapons inspectors despite renewed warnings from Washington to do so or face unspecified consequences. The new warnings come as debate continues in Washington over whether Iraq should be a target in the U.S.-led war on terror. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel looks at developments in the Iraq crisis over the past year.

Prague, 12 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- As 2001 draws to a close, the biggest question surrounding the Iraq crisis is whether Washington regards Baghdad as the next target in its global war on terrorism.

The question is still far from being answered, with U.S. officials themselves reported to be divided over the issue. But the weeks since 11 September have seen top U.S. leaders repeatedly warn Baghdad that it could become a target if it does not take steps to reassure Washington that it does not represent a terrorist threat.

U.S. President George W. Bush demanded in November that Baghdad readmit UN weapons inspectors to prove Iraq is not developing weapons of mass destruction. The U.S. president said Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has allowed inspectors into the country before and must do so again.

"Saddam Hussein agreed to allow inspectors in his country in order to prove to the world he is not developing weapons of mass destruction. He ought to let the inspectors back in," Bush said.

Iraq has refused to let UN arms inspectors return since late 1998, when they left Iraq prior to U.S. and British air strikes punishing Baghdad for not cooperating on arms inspections.

The U.S. president also said that current U.S. military operations to root out terrorism based in Afghanistan is only the beginning of what Washington regards as a global war on terror.

"I stand by those words: Afghanistan is still just the beginning. If anybody harbors a terrorist, they are a terrorist. If they house terrorists, they are terrorists. If they develop weapons of mass destruction that would be used to terrorize nations, they will be held accountable," Bush said. "As for Mr. Saddam Hussein, he needs to let inspectors back into his country to show us that he is not developing weapons of mass destruction."

The U.S. president's remarks came as several key policy makers in Washington advocated U.S. military action against Iraq in the wake of the September attacks on America. The debate has been fanned by U.S. newspaper reports that a classified U.S. intelligence document indicates that one of the suicide pilots who crashed into the World Trade Center met with an Iraqi intelligence agent in Europe earlier in 2001.

But U.S. officials also have said they have yet to obtain conclusive proof of any direct Iraqi involvement in the attacks. And they have said Washington is planning no imminent retaliatory measures against Baghdad.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said in late November that "this suggestion out of the media right now that something is on the verge of happening has no particular underpinning substance to it."

Several of Washington's partners in the war on terror have warned that broadening it to include Iraq would risk weakening the global campaign. German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer said in November that European nations are highly skeptical about including Iraq as a target. France's defense minister, Alain Richard, has said Paris does not see a need for military action against any states other than Afghanistan. And the Arab League has warned that any strike on an Arab country such as Iraq would end the international coalition against terrorism.

As debate increasingly focuses on Baghdad's relation to the global war on terror, the Bush administration has postponed into 2002 its efforts to develop a "smart sanctions" regime for Iraq. That initiative, launched soon after President Bush took office in January, was intended to tighten controls over Baghdad's ability to procure items of military use and its ability to smuggle oil via neighboring states. In exchange, the U.S. "smart sanctions" proposal was to simplify procedures for Baghdad to import a broader range of civilian-use items.

But Washington's "smart sanctions" initiative ran into resistance this summer as Russia backed Baghdad's refusal to cooperate with any such steps. Moscow, which has been an ally of Iraq, was reported to fear losing lucrative contracts if it opposed Baghdad. At the same time, Russian officials have repeatedly said they want the UN to take steps leading toward a suspension of the sanctions on Baghdad, which were imposed in 1990 when Iraq invaded Kuwait.

The smart sanctions proposal is now on hold until 2002 after the U.S. and Russia decided in November to postpone any further immediate discussion of it. The decision came as the UN Security Council renewed the oil-for-food program for another six months under its current terms but committed to conclude talks by 1 June on any changes to the sanctions regime.

On the military side, 2001 saw continuing confrontations between Iraqi air defenses and allied warplanes patrolling the no-fly zones over the south and north of the country. U.S. and British planes made a concentrated attack on Iraqi air defenses in February following reports that Baghdad was receiving help from Chinese companies in installing fiber-optic communications to make its radar harder to jam. U.S. and British officials said the upgrades were part of growing Iraqi efforts to shoot down an allied plane and capture airmen for use as diplomatic bargaining chips.

Since the February air raids, the U.S. and Britain have continued to carry out periodic small-scale bombings of Iraqi air defenses to reduce the chances of any planes being downed. U.S. and British officials also have said they are reviewing their strategy regarding the no-fly zones and changes could be forthcoming in the new year.

One option is to step up the strikes on Iraq's air defenses. Another is to reduce the frequency of patrols and instead rely upon threats of massive retaliation to deter Baghdad from violating the zones.

Britain, France, and the United States originally declared the no-fly zones after the 1991 Gulf War to protect Iraqi Kurds in northern Iraq and Iraqi Shiites in southern Iraq. The move came after both groups launched rebellions against Saddam and then became the targets of brutal reprisal measures, including the use of air power, against them.

Baghdad considers the no-fly zones -- which were established without a UN resolution after the Gulf War -- a violation of its sovereignty.