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Iraq: Focus Of Cheney's Mideast Tour May Be Tougher Stance

  • Charles Recknagel

U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney is in London today for the start of a 10-day trip that also will take him to many of Iraq's neighboring states. The official agenda of the trip is to discuss the ongoing U.S.-led war on terrorism, as well as regional security matters. But the tour comes amid heightening tensions between Washington and Baghdad, fueling speculation that the main purpose may be to build support for toppling Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

Prague, 11 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney, like other U.S. officials, has yet to say anything publicly about carrying Washington's war on terrorism to Iraq.

But Cheney, like other top American leaders, has said the war on terrorism is still in its initial stages and that rogue states developing weapons of mass destruction are a primary U.S. concern.

Cheney arrived in London today on the first leg of a 12-nation tour that will focus on the Mideast. He told reporters late last week that the purpose of his trip is to "talk about...our ongoing operations not only in Afghanistan, but in other respects as well." He said it is important "not to overlook the activities that are required in other parts of the region."

The tour begins as U.S. President George W. Bush is due today to mark the six-month anniversary of the 11 September terrorist attacks on America. Bush's speech in Washington is expected to partly focus on U.S. goals for the next phase of the war on terrorism.

The observance comes as tensions continue to grow between Washington and Baghdad over Iraq's refusal to readmit UN weapons inspectors, who left the country more than three years ago.

U.S. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said over the weekend that Washington will demand total compliance from Baghdad if it readmits inspectors. At the same time, Iraq's Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan said Baghdad's refusal to readmit monitors at all remains "firm and won't change."

Last week, the UN renewed discussions for the first time in a year with Iraq regarding arms inspections and other issues, with another meeting due next month.

The high tensions between Washington and Baghdad are fueling speculation that the main purpose for Cheney's visit to the Mideast at this time is to build support for a regime change in Baghdad as the only way to assure Iraq's suspected weapons of mass destruction programs are terminated.

U.S. officials have said they fear rogue states could supply weapons of mass destruction to terrorist groups to strike America. In January, Bush dubbed Iraq, Iran, and North Korea an "axis of evil" that directly threatens the country's national security.

Analysts say Cheney's trip will sound out regional leaders regarding how strongly they might support -- or oppose -- a range of U.S. policy options for dealing with Iraq's Saddam Hussein.

American media have reported that, at the political and economic end, those options might include persuading regional states to push Baghdad to accept rigorous and highly intrusive weapons inspections -- something the Iraqi leadership is loath to do. As for the military options, these could include launching a military campaign or supporting a coup to topple Hussein from power. Several U.S. newspapers have reported that Washington is pursuing several of these options at once and will choose between them at a later date.

Amir Taheri, an editor at the Paris-based journal "Politique Internationale," has been closely following the Iraq crisis. He told Radio Free Iraq correspondent Sami Shoresh that Cheney's trip will play a key role in helping Washington determine its strategy toward Iraq.

"The [Bush administration's] plan is to bring about a change of regime in Baghdad. How this will be done, I think, is being debated, and it will be decided within the next few weeks. Vice President Cheney is going to visit a number of Arab countries in order to sound them out about this and mobilize the necessary level of support from Egypt, from Jordan, from Turkey, from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and other Gulf states. And once that is done, the final decision will be with President Bush."

After visiting Britain, America's closest ally, Cheney is due to visit Jordan tomorrow, as well as Bahrain, Egypt, Israel, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. Where he goes and when is being kept secret for security reasons.

Ahead of his visit, Turkey and Jordan this week restated their opposition to any U.S.-led military campaign against Iraq.

Turkey, a NATO member, said an attack on Baghdad would seriously affect the Turkish economy while it is struggling to recover from a deep recession. Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit said this week he will discuss Ankara's concerns about a war with Iraq "very openly" when Cheney arrives.

Turkey has previously said it fears any destabilization in Iraq could lead to the creation of an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq. Ankara worries that could inspire Kurdish separatism in southeastern Turkey, where Turkish forces have long been fighting ethnic Kurdish guerrillas.

Jordan, another close U.S. ally, has also expressed its strong objections. King Abdullah said this week that "striking Iraq represents a catastrophe to Iraq and the region in general, and threatens the security and stability of the region." Energy-poor Jordan is a major trading partner with Iraq, from which it receives discounted oil through a UN-approved exception to the sanctions on Baghdad.

Opposition to a military campaign against Iraq was a key theme of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's trip to Washington earlier this month. Saudi Arabia has also objected to military action, though some key figures have said Riyadh would back a regime change through a coup.

Analysts say Cheney's trip signals that the Bush administration is determined to use all of its persuasive abilities to urge regional countries to join the U.S. in a tougher Iraq policy, the final form of which remains uncertain. Cheney, who was the U.S. secretary of defense during the 1991 Gulf War and formerly a senior oil executive, has top-level personal contacts throughout the region.

Judith Kipper is a regional expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. She calls Cheney's tour essential to Washington's hopes for avoiding any impression of acting unilaterally against Iraq.

"All visits by American officials [to the region] are positive because they increase the level of consultation between other countries and the U.S., and that is essential. Obviously, the [fact that Cheney is the U.S.] vice president, with his experience and the fact that he is an elected official, the prestige that he carries with him, [all that] makes for a very significant trip."

She continues, "And one hopes that part of his mission is going to be to reassure, to explain, to consult -- not after the fact but before the U.S. takes action -- because this is something that is of great concern in the Gulf, that the U.S. often consults after the decision has been made or just at the moment when an action is being taken, and that puts [its regional allies] in a very difficult situation."

As Cheney tours the region, he also is expected to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian crisis and a recent Saudi proposal to solve it. Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah has proposed normalizing Arab-Israeli relations in exchange for an Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian territory captured in 1967.