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2002 In Review: U.S. Edges Close To War In Iraq But Gives UN One Last Chance

  • Charles Recknagel

The past 12 months have seen almost continual talk of a U.S.-led war on Iraq. Repeated warnings from Washington and its closest ally, London, that Baghdad might have to be disarmed by force finally pushed the UN to vote unanimously in favor of a tough new weapons-inspection timetable, which Iraq accepted. But as 2002 draws to a close, the suspense over whether the Iraq crisis will end with diplomacy or war shows no sign of easing.

Prague, 12 December 2002 (RFE/RL) -- This was the year in which the Iraq crisis became the world's top concern, transforming from a decade-long UN debate into a showdown with just two possible endings: Iraqi disarmament or a U.S. assault.

How the Iraqi crisis will end remains very much in suspense. As the year concludes, Washington has said it will give time for UN arms inspectors to work in Iraq and to test whether or not Baghdad has any intention of disarming peacefully.

But U.S. President George W. Bush -- who often says he is a "patient" man -- has refused to say how long his patience will last. And in a sign he will not let the Iraqi crisis drag out as before, the U.S. has spent much of the year laying the foundations for a military attack that would disarm Iraq by force.

The transformation of the Iraqi issue into an urgent global crisis occurred when Bush visited the UN on 12 September, just one day after the first anniversary of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.

Bush -- who even before his election had bitterly criticized what he called the world community's failure to contain Iraq -- challenged the UN to either give Baghdad a short timetable for disarmament or watch the U.S. lead a coalition to do the job itself. "Iraq has answered a decade of UN demands with a decade of defiance. All the world now faces a test, and the United Nations [faces] a difficult and defining moment. Are Security Council resolutions to be honored and enforced or cast aside without consequence? Will the United Nations serve the purpose of its founding, or will it be irrelevant?"

Bush couched the American argument against Iraq in new and pressing terms. He said that Baghdad, which for years had been regarded as only a regional threat, also posed a direct danger to U.S. and world security because it might supply weapons of mass destruction to terrorists.

Bush's speech firmly set Iraq as the next target of the U.S.-led war on terror. It also set forth clear conditions for Baghdad to meet if "the Iraqi regime wants peace." The terms included Iraq's immediate disclosure of all weapons of mass destruction and their elimination, an end to human rights abuses inside the country, and an end to oil smuggling.

In weeks of negotiations following Bush's speech, Washington -- backed by Britain -- persuaded all the members of the Security Council to unanimously pass a resolution setting a tough new timetable for Iraq to resume cooperating with arms inspectors. But the U.S.-sponsored resolution also preserved Washington's right to unilaterally use force against Iraq by authorizing "member states to use all necessary means to restore international peace and security" should Iraq fail "at any time to comply and cooperate fully."

The new UN resolution was a major diplomatic victory for the Bush administration, which capitalized on opportunities provided by the new world order that has emerged with the war on terror. The resolution came just a month after the U.S. Congress gave Bush the power to determine -- at his sole discretion -- when diplomacy has failed and the U.S. should take military action against Iraq.

Russia's endorsement of the new UN terms was particularly dramatic because Moscow has strong trading ties with Baghdad. But Russian President Vladimir Putin gave clear precedence to his own closer relationship with Washington.

Yet in endorsing the UN resolution, Russia and France did put conditions upon their acceptance of any punitive military campaign against Baghdad. Russia, like many other nations, said it would only approve of action within a UN framework. France said it would first want to see a new UN resolution specifically ordering the use of force against Baghdad.

One major U.S. ally, Germany, has said it will never support a war to disarm Iraq, insisting instead on a diplomatic settlement of the crisis. German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder repeated that position last month, although he said Berlin would facilitate U.S. troop movements through its territory. "We have made clear that we will not participate in any military operation, and we have declared that we will deal with the request the following way: We will give the right to the United States and NATO countries to fly over [Germany], unhindered transit for U.S. and NATO troops, the use of U.S. military installations in Germany by the United States and [NATO] members and, of course, the protection of installations, as we have done in the past."

Other political voices in Germany have raised doubts about whether Berlin even should provide overflight and transit rights. Angelika Beer, the head of the Greens party -- the junior member of Schroeder's coalition government -- has said she would oppose Washington's use of facilities in Germany for any attack that does not have specific UN authorization.

The international community's tougher stance on Iraq saw its first success as UN arms inspectors went back to work late last month. But it still remains far from clear whether the new strategy will result in Iraq disarming peacefully or in a new U.S.-led war against Iraq that would topple President Saddam Hussein.

An initial test of Iraq's cooperation came early this month, as Baghdad met a 8 December deadline for declaring to the UN the full extent of its weapons-of-mass-destruction program. The declaration, which runs 12,000 pages, has yet to be fully translated and analyzed by arms inspectors, delaying international reaction to its content.

But even as it filed on time, Baghdad signaled defiance over Washington's demands to disarm. General Hossam Mohammed Amin, the official in charge of compiling the report, told reporters it would prove Iraq has no weapons of mass destruction. "I reiterate here that Iraq has no weapons of mass destruction, but these declarations perhaps contain some activities and equipment which are dual use and they will be declared fully and completely and accurately to the Security Council, to [the UN weapons inspection commission] UNMOVIC and to the IAEA [the International Atomic Energy Agency]."

That stance could set the stage for Washington to declare Iraq guilty of a new "material breach" of its obligation to cooperate on arms inspections -- a breach serious enough to warrant using punitive force. But Washington has signaled that it will wait for a pattern of Iraqi non-cooperation to emerge before it decides whether to go to war. A further test of Iraq's cooperation will come on 27 January, the deadline set by the UN for arms inspectors to give their first report to the Security Council.

Still, even as Washington engages closely in the UN's diplomatic effort to disarm Iraq peacefully, the U.S. also continues to prepare for war if Bush deems the effort a failure.

This month, General Tommy Franks, the head of the U.S. Central Command and the man likely to direct any war against Iraq, arrived in Qatar to test a new regional headquarters that would coordinate military operations.

At the same time, the U.S. has supplemented military stocks in Kuwait that could be used to support a ground attack and strengthened its naval presence in the Gulf. And Bush has authorized combat training for exile opposition fighters to create a force of some 5,000 Iraqis who could serve as scouts and interpreters to assist U.S. forces in an attack and help maintain public order if Saddam's authority crumbles.

While preparing for war, Washington has queried numerous other countries as to what support they might contribute to a U.S.-led military campaign. So far, the results have been mixed, though U.S. officials say privately that they expect to get full cooperation if war becomes inevitable.

A key regional ally, Turkey, said this month that the U.S. could use its air bases but that domestic public opinion would have difficulty accepting large numbers of U.S. troops for a ground campaign. Another of Iraq's neighbors, Saudi Arabia, has said it would not participate in a war, but press reports say it could allow use of a key air base.

The cautious public responses from some regional governments come as surveys show growing anti-American feeling in the Mideast over the possibility of a U.S. attack on Iraq. A poll published by the Washington-based Pew Research Center this month said public suspicion of U.S. intentions toward Iraq is high among Muslim countries and among some long-standing NATO allies, including France, Germany, and Turkey.

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