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Iraq: Baghdad's Neighbors Nervous As U.S. Weighs Options

  • Charles Recknagel

As Washington toughens its rhetoric toward Baghdad, Iraq's neighbors are growing increasingly nervous that the U.S. could next target Iraq in its war on terror. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel looks at the regional reaction to U.S. President George W. Bush's new focus on Baghdad.

Prague, 13 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The past few weeks have seen the U.S. administration increasingly move from terming Iraq a regional menace to calling it a threat to America's own national security.

That shift in terminology manifested itself most dramatically in a speech by U.S. President George W. Bush last month (29 January) in which he labeled Baghdad part of an "axis of evil" that also includes Iran and North Korea. Since then, top U.S. officials have made it clear Washington reserves the right to act unilaterally to remove any danger that Iraq might one day supply weapons of mass destruction to terrorists.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said last week that the United States continues to look at possibilities for a regime change in Baghdad and that Bush is examining "the most serious assessment of options one might imagine." Powell added, however, that while "with Iraq, we are always examining options for regime change...we are not [now] at some point where we are going into contingency plans to invade Iraq."

The repeated signals that Washington views Baghdad as a potential target in its war on terror come as U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney prepares to make a Mideast tour next month. The "Los Angeles Times" reported that the U.S. administration is expected to complete an Iraq policy review by the time of Cheney's trip so that he can outline future American plans to Arab leaders.

Ahead of Cheney's trip -- his first to the region as vice president -- several countries are expressing nervousness over Washington's increasingly tough talk on Baghdad.

Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit told reporters on 11 February that Ankara does not want "a military action against Iraq." Asked why he had chosen this moment to re-state Turkey's fears, he added that "events are developing very quickly" and "at least we have given a warning."

Turkish analysts say Ankara is willing to help Washington apply political pressure on Baghdad over any terrorism concerns. But it views any military action against Iraq as carrying a high risk for destabilizing the region.

Seyfi Tashan, director of the Turkish Foreign Policy Institute at Bilkent University in Ankara, also expressed Turkish reservations: "Obviously, Turkey would not leave the United States [to stand] alone if the U.S. demands certain [political] contributions from Turkey, though the form of these contributions is not yet absolutely clear."

He continued: "[However,] Turkey does not wish to get involved in a warlike situation with Iraq. And secondly, there is a general belief that if there is a U.S. intervention in Iraq, then Iraq may, let's say, break down, be partitioned and that then maybe [there would be] a Kurdish independent state in northern Iraq, [and that is] anathema for Turkey."

Jordan -- another of Iraq's neighbors and a key U.S. ally -- also is urging Washington to be cautious. Shortly after Bush's speech last month, Jordan's King Abdullah warned that targeting Iraq would "create immense instability in the whole region."

Other states have given mixed responses to the prospect of U.S. action.

Saudi Arabia has warned against any U.S.-led invasion of Iraq but indicated it would work closely with Washington to foment a revolution against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

Prince Turki al-Faisal, who was the kingdom's intelligence chief for more than two decades before leaving the post in August, told U.S. reporters recently that "we believe the way to go is from inside Iraq." He added, "If you send an invasion force to Iraq...you're going to create...resentment and fear and anger at the United States."

Saudi public opinion is currently deeply divided over the continuing presence of some 5,000 U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia since the Gulf War of 1991. U.S. media has quoted some Saudi officials as saying anonymously that the American soldiers should leave.

Kuwait, which like Saudi Arabia has no diplomatic relations with Baghdad, has not publicly endorsed or opposed any new U.S. military action. But this weekend it urged Iraq to readmit UN arms inspectors in order to "avoid exposing the Iraqi people to harm" and warned that if there is a military operation, "it will not be like what happened in the past."

Iran -- which fought an eight-year war with Baghdad in the 1980s and also has no diplomatic relations -- has taken little part in the new debate over Iraq. But Tehran has stepped up its own criticisms of Washington in the wake of being dubbed part of an "axis of evil" itself.

Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi told a meeting of Islamic and European countries in Turkey yesterday that what he called a widespread global consensus against terrorism had formed after the 11 September attacks. But he said, "unfortunately, the voices coming from Washington recently are totally out of this international line."

As Cheney prepares for his Mideast trip, U.S. analysts say his main challenge will be to convince America's allies in the war on terrorism that Washington is correct to increasingly focus attention on Iraq.

Judith Kipper is a regional expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., who recently made a three-week trip to the Gulf states. She says support among U.S. allies is still strong for the war on terror, but many remain to be convinced about whether the war needs to be expanded to Iraq.

"I don't think that any country which is a friend and ally of the United States is reassessing being part of a coalition against terror. Everybody is against terror, and terror has been a problem and a threat to countries like Egypt and others over the years. But I think there are real questions that have been raised about American objectives, about how the whole notion of terrorism might include countries like Iraq, which has weapons of mass destruction [and] is under UN sanctions. [And yet] so far there is no evidence linking it to a recent terror attack."

She continues: "So the U.S. really has to make an effort to not use slogans but to really do some serious explaining and consultation with friends and allies who have a high degree of concern and anxiety, which is understandable considering they don't have as much information about U.S. policy as they need."

Cheney is due to visit some 10 countries, including Iraqi's neighbors Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. A top aide to Cheney told Reuters last week that he will "hold wide-ranging discussions on matters...including our ongoing campaign against terrorism and other regional security issues."

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