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Iraq: Hussein Keeps World Guessing On Arms Inspections

  • Charles Recknagel

The Iraqi parliament has rejected the new UN resolution placing tough conditions for arms inspections on Baghdad. But the parliament has left Iraq's official position unresolved, because the purely symbolic body has referred the whole question to a final decision by President Saddam Hussein. RFE/RL looks at what Hussein is likely to decide before Iraq's deadline for responding to the UN expires on 15 November.

Prague, 13 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Saddam Hussein is famous for keeping his intentions hidden until the moment he announces his decision -- a strategy he is again employing as the 15 November deadline to accept the United Nations resolution approaches.

This week, instead of giving any public inkling of what he thinks, the Iraqi president has let all eyes, both in Iraq and abroad, focus on a two-day debate in the Iraqi parliament. The debate ended yesterday in a unanimous vote to reject the UN resolution and to send the matter on to Hussein himself for the final decision.

As political theater, the two-day exercise in the Iraqi parliament is the kind of thing that irritates Western leaders. The parliament is seen by everybody both inside and outside Iraq as a symbolic body whose members are carefully vetted for loyalty to the regime before they are permitted to run in closely controlled elections.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell expressed some of the impatience in Washington with the parliamentary proceedings in remarks to the press yesterday. "The expression made by their [Iraqi] National Assembly today is not to be taken seriously. This isn't a real parliament. The only power that exists, exists in the hands of Saddam Hussein and we'll wait to see what he says," Powell said.

But if the parliament merely passed the final decision on to Hussein, the body's debate, which was nationally televised in Iraq, still added considerable tension to the wait for the president's answer on 15 November.

Many observers were surprised by the strong language the parliament's members used in denouncing the UN resolution as a breach of international law and even a humiliation for Iraq, were it to be accepted.

The Iraqi parliamentary proceedings saw Hussein's eldest son Uday, as parliamentary speaker, heightening the show of anger by initially suggesting the body could accept the resolution if Arabs were included among the arms inspectors, a recommendation previously made by the Arab League.

But by the debate's end, even Uday abandoned his call for acceptance and furiously joined the rest of the body in a unanimous "no" vote.

The parliamentarians' strong language against the resolution -- even to the point of calling it humiliating -- surprised some observers because such words could only be spoken with the permission of Hussein. That gave the proceedings the air of a media campaign aimed at preparing the Iraqi people for a final "no" from the Iraqi leader, something that Washington has clearly said would mean war.

U.S. President George W. Bush repeated what he says will happen if Iraq refuses the resolution in remarks to the press yesterday. "If Saddam Hussein does not comply to the detail with the [UN Security Council] resolution, we will lead a coalition to disarm him. It's over. We're through [negotiating]. There's no more time. The man must disarm. He said he would disarm; he now must disarm," Bush said.

Analysts say that the parliament's unanimous "no" vote now gives Hussein several courses of action to choose from in the few days remaining for Baghdad's response.

One possibility is that he will claim to respect the parliament's decision as the popular will of Iraq and refuse to cooperate with the UN. Uday helped lay the groundwork for that choice by recommending to parliament that Baghdad launch military action against the United States if Iraq cannot win better conditions for arms inspections. The UN has said the terms of its resolution are non-negotiable.

Another possibility is that Hussein will reject the parliament's decision by calling it patriotic but hotheaded, while casting himself as a calm leader who is properly managing the crisis. That could help him to appear strong even as he accepts the UN's terms -- an acceptance that would reverse Iraq's four-year policy of barring the return of arms inspectors.

Finally, Hussein could try to turn the parliament's decision into an eleventh-hour effort to strengthen his position against the UN even as he accepts the resolution.

Gerd Nonneman, a regional expert at the University of Lancaster in England, said that by pointing to the anger of his parliament, Hussein may hope to convince some UN members that he is making significant concessions and can be dealt with more leniently than the United States and Britain, which pushed hard for the tough new resolution, suggest. "[Hussein] is trying to show the world and the rest of the UN -- of course not the U.S. and U.K. because they are not persuadable as far as he is concerned -- but to show the rest of the UN that he is making very serious concessions here. At the same time, perhaps he is trying to give the impression that [the world] won't gain by getting rid of him as an individual, that all of Iraq is even more determined than he is," Nonneman said.

In the past, Hussein has often sought to divide the members of the UN Security Council over how to deal with him. Those efforts have centered on trying to convince France and Russia to take a more flexible position than the United States and Britain over what constitutes cooperation on disarmament.

Analysts say Hussein may hope that, while the UN members stand united now, differences may yet emerge during the likely contentious inspection process over what kinds of obstructions constitute a "material breach" of Baghdad's disarmament obligations.

Finding Iraq in material breach would greatly strengthen any effort by Washington to gain broad global support for U.S. military action against Baghdad. Lack of unanimity over whether Iraq were in material breach would weaken those same efforts.

As Hussein weighs his decision, many analysts expect him to announce on the 15 November deadline that Iraq will accept the return of arms inspectors.

But any such announcement, which may come in the form of a letter to the Iraqi parliament or directly to the Iraqi people explaining his reasons, will likely make it clear that Hussein sees the return as leading to a final victory for Baghdad, not a defeat.