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Iraq Report: August 23, 2002


23 August 2002, Volume 5, Number 26

BUSH DISCUSSES SECURITY WITH SENIOR ADVISERS. At a meeting at his Texas ranch on 21 August, U.S. President George W. Bush discussed security policy with senior members of his security team, including Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. At a news conference afterwards, with Rumsfeld standing next to him, the president attempted to cool speculation about possible U.S. plans to attack Iraq. Bush said the U.S. would "consult with people who share our interests" in removing Saddam, the "International Herald Tribune" reported on 22 August. He reiterated that "regime change" in Iraq was "in the interests of the world," but added, "How we achieve that is a matter of consultation and deliberation."

President Bush emphasized that he was "a patient man. And when I say I'm a patient man I mean I'm a patient man, and that we will look at all options, and all technologies available to us." He pointedly noted that General Tommy Franks, who U.S. Forces commander in chief for the Middle East and Central Asia, had not been invited to the meeting. Apart from Rumsfeld, others there were Vice President Dick Cheney, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, Chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff General Richard Myers, and White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card. (Simon Henderson)

U.S. MOVING SUPPLIES AND ARMS NEAR IRAQ. A story from "The New York Times" carried by the "International Herald Tribune" on 20 August reported that the U.S. is sending weapons and other supplies to the Middle East "that could be a critical part of the war stocks" if President Bush decides to attack Saddam Husseyn. The report said the Pentagon had hired two giant cargo ships to carry armored vehicles and helicopters, among other war fighting materiel, and eight additional cargo ships capable of carrying ammunition, tanks, and ambulances. It also claimed the U.S. Air Force was stockpiling weapons, ammunition, and spare parts, including aircraft engines, at depots in the Persian Gulf region and the U.S. It quoted military officials as saying arsenals of air force and navy precision-guided weapons, which proved devastating in Afghanistan, should be fully replenished by the fall.

But the report cautioned that senior Pentagon officials say the logistical movements do not represent a secretive deployment and should not be interpreted as evidence that a campaign is imminent, or even a certainty.

One of the ships being contracted will move troop-carrying combat vehicles from Europe and the U.S. to the Gulf to join equipment for four armored brigades already stored there. Another will carry similar vehicles, helicopters, and ammunition to an unspecified Red Sea port (believed to be the Jordanian port of Aqaba) for a military exercise later this year. The eight cargo ships capable of carrying ammunition and tanks will be positioned near the British island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean which already serves as a U.S. military base.

Equipment for two reinforced army armored brigades is already in the region, stored in 37 huge warehouses in Kuwait and Qatar. Each country holds in storage about 115 M-1A1 Abrams tanks, 60 M-2A2 Bradley fighting vehicles, 100 armored personnel carriers, 25 mortars, and 20 155mm howitzers. The 9,000 troops needed to man the equipment could be airlifted in and ready for action in 96 hours. Equipment for another armored brigade from the army and one from the U.S. Marine Corps is afloat on ships in the region. (Simon Henderson)

U.S. AND BRITISH AIR STRIKES FOR SECOND TIME IN A WEEK. Iraq claimed on 17 August that U.S. and British aircraft had bombed civilian and public buildings in Dhiqar province 250 kilometers south of Baghdad, Reuters reported.

The news agency was not able to report any immediate confirmation by British or U.S. officials. An earlier strike on 14 August had been confirmed by British officials. In that strike, also in southern Iraq, Baghdad claimed that four civilians had been killed. (Simon Henderson)

CNN BOSS VISITS BAGHDAD. The chief news executive of the American cable and satellite news channel CNN visited Baghdad for talks on 20 August. Eason Jordan met the speaker of the National Assembly, Dr Sadoun Hammadi, the official Iraqi News Agency reported. It quoted Hammadi as emphasizing to the CNN executive "the importance of factual reporting on Iraq while it is subjected to an ongoing aggression and an unjust embargo that has caused an acute shortage of food and medicines and other basic staples." He claimed these conditions had killed more than 1.6 million Iraqis. Hammadi accused the Western media of disseminating "tendentious reports and statements to the international public."

During previous military action CNN has been careful to make sure it had at least one correspondent in Baghdad able to broadcast news. During the 1990-91 Gulf war, CNN famously was the only international broadcasting organization to have a correspondent in Baghdad and the channel received a worldwide audience and established its reputation. (Simon Henderson)

RUSSIA AND IRAQ TO SIGN BROAD ECONOMIC ACCORD. Russian and Iraqi officials were reported on 18 August to be close to signing a new five-year economic-cooperation agreement worth $40 billion, "The Washington Post" reported on 19 August. The newspaper commented that "Russia's apparent refusal to abandon its long-time ally, despite vigorous U.S. efforts to isolate Iraq, could make it even more difficult for the U.S. to rally Russian and other world leaders behind any invasion." An alternative explanation would be that Russia was trying to extort a price from the U.S. for acquiescing to any military action against Iraq. A spokesman for President Bush was quoted as declining to criticize Russian President Vladimir Putin when asked about reports of the trade deal. Later, his spokesman Dan Bartlett. appearing on an ABC television program, said, "We do believe that President Putin and Russia are working in cooperation with the war on terrorism." State Department officials expressed hope that any such agreement would remain within limits imposed by United Nations sanctions, "The Washington Post" reported.

The five-year agreement announced on 16 August dealt with cooperation in a variety of fields. "The Washington Post" said oil was foremost but it also covered electrical-power generation, chemical products, irrigation, railroad construction, and transportation. The newspaper reported that Soviet or Russian specialists built much of the infrastructure in Iraq, and so Baghdad wants Russian expertise to help repair or upgrade it.

Iraq's ambassador to Moscow, Abbas Khalaf, said: "Russia was, is and will be our main partner. What we need from Moscow is moral, political, and diplomatic support because Iraq has shown the whole world that it can defend itself." "The Washington Post" said, "Few countries have more significant economic interests in Iraq than Russia, totaling billions of dollars both in the form of unpaid Soviet-era debts and unrealized post-Soviet oil contracts."

Khalaf, a former high-ranking Iraqi Foreign Ministry official and personal translator to Saddam Husseyn, arrived in Moscow as new ambassador a month ago. He disclosed the planned economic pact in an interview on 16 August and a senior Russian official confirmed it. An aide to Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov was quoted by "The Washington Post" as saying all ministries had agreed to the document. A signing ceremony "could happen very soon."

Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri is to visit Russia from 1-3 September, the Russian ITAR-TASS news agency reported on 19 August. Sabri will be meeting his Russian counterpart, Igor Ivanov, on 2 September. The agency reported sources as saying relations between Baghdad and the United Nations would be discussed. It noted that later in September there is the annual General Assembly meeting of the United Nations in New York. (Simon Henderson)

HOSTAGE SIEGE AT BERLIN EMBASSY ENDED BY GERMAN POLICE. The Iraqi Embassy in Berlin was taken over by a group of men on 20 August and embassy staff held hostage until freed by German police a few hours later. "The New York Times" reported on 22 August that the five hostage takers appeared in court on 21 August where a judge ordered them detained for further questioning. Their names were not released but they were reported to range in age from 32 to 43. They were believed to be Iraqis who had been living at a hostel for asylum seekers. Four had registered as asylum seekers in Berlin in March this year, the fifth had done so last year, a court official was quoted as saying.

The men were armed with a pistol, two pepper-spray cans, an electric prod, and a hatchet, when they seized the embassy. The four hostages included the charge d'affaires, Shamil Mohammad, a first secretary. Mohammad was quoted by "The New York Times" as saying the five men were "gangsters, paid mercenaries, who were getting their orders from outside, on their cell phones." He said the attack "was aimed not only against Iraq but also against Germany." Like the Iraqi Foreign Ministry on the day of the siege, he said the Israeli and U.S. governments were behind the action, a charge both countries denied.

The arrested men themselves claimed to be members of the Democratic Iraqi Opposition of Germany, a hitherto unknown organization. They called for the end of "the terrorist regime of Saddam Husseyn and his killers." The seizure, the group said in a statement, "is intended to make the German people, its organizations and its political powers understand that our people have the desire to be free and will act on it." Other known Iraqi opposition groups, including the main Iraqi National Congress (INC), headed by Ahmed Chalabi, said they did not know the men or the group they represented, "The New York Times" reported. The INC condemned the attack, saying its fight against Saddam would be carried out in Iraq itself. (Simon Henderson)

IRAQ GIVES DETAILS OF ABU NIDAL'S 'SUICIDE.' Despite earlier reports that the Palestinian terrorist Abu Nidal had committed suicide in Baghdad because he was dying of cancer, Iraqi secret service chief Taher Jalil Habbush told journalists on 21 August that Abu Nidal killed himself to avoid interrogation by Iraqi agents. Habbush said Abu Nidal, whose real name was Sabri al-Banna, shot himself in the mouth in his Baghdad apartment. Iraqi agents had come to arrest him but allowed him to go to another room to change, Reuters reported. "A shot was fired," Habbush said, and "the group of agents discovered that he had shot himself in his mouth and the bullet had exited the back of his skull." The Palestinian, whose group, the Fatah Revolutionary Council, murdered dozens during the 1980s, died eight hours later in hospital.

The Iraq secret service chief did not give the date of Abu Nidal's death but earlier reports said it had been 16 August. He claimed that Abu Nidal had entered the country illegally using a false Yemeni passport. His arrival had been unnoticed until Baghdad was tipped off by a "brotherly Arab country," the Iraqi official added. Habbush said coded messages found in Abu Nidal's apartment revealed he was on the payroll of a foreign country. Reports on 20 August, quoted by BBC On-line on 21 August, suggested Abu Nidal had established contacts with what the Iraqis described as Kuwaitis plotting against Iraq.

On 21 August Reuters reported from the Syrian capital, Damascus, quoting a representative of the Fatah Revolutionary Council as dismissing the claim that Abu Nidal had committed suicide and charging that he had been assassinated by the intelligence services of an unnamed country, a presumed reference to Iraq. "We consider this an assassination, conceived of in advance and carried out by an intelligence apparatus," a statement said. It went on, "Abu Nidal, an unyielding believer who entered battle on several fronts, could not have attempted suicide for the reasons given."

Abu Nidal was held responsible for a series of bloody terror attacks in the 1980s, including machine-gun attacks on passengers checking in for the Israel airline, El Al, at airports in Rome and Vienna in December 1985. He also carried out several attacks in France, including a bomb attack on a Paris synagogue and a machine-gun attack on a Jewish restaurant. Abu Nidal lived in Baghdad until 1984 when his removal was a condition of the U.S. re-establishing diplomatic relations with Iraq. He then moved to Libya. (Simon Henderson)

IRAQI PARLIAMENT BACKS SADDAM FOR A NEW PRESIDENTIAL TERM. Unsurprisingly, the National Assembly of Iraq has unanimously approved the nomination of Saddam Husseyn for another seven-year term as president. The vote -- by a show of hands -- came four days after the Revolutionary Command Council, the top decision-making body, proposed him as the only candidate for the leadership, Iraqi Satellite TV reported on 19 August. Saddam, who has been president since 1979, will now have his nomination put to a referendum, scheduled to be held in mid-October. He won a similar referendum in 1995 with a reported 99.96 percent of the vote.

Apart from holding the office of president, Saddam is also secretary-general of the ruling Ba'th Party, head of state, prime minister, and commander in chief of the armed forces.

Also on 19 August, Saddam was congratulated by the Iraqi cabinet at its weekly meeting. His nomination as presidential candidate was made because he was "the definite and firm guarantor of Iraq's sovereignty, independence, strength, and dignity," according to Iraqi TV. Saddam replied by thanking the cabinet, saying, "May God bless and preserve you." He said he saw victory "as if we were reliving the day of 8 August 1988," when Iran accepted a cease-fire after eight years of war. (Simon Henderson)

SADDAM SPEAKS TO NUCLEAR AND MILITARY PERSONNEL. Saddam Husseyn met the head of Iraq's Atomic Energy Organization (AEO), Dr. Fadil Muslim al-Janabi, on 18 August, along with researchers from the AEO and the Oil and Military Industrialization ministries. According to a report on Iraqi TV that day, Saddam gave a "valuable" speech, "underlining the importance of collective work in enabling the individual to overcome any trouble and achieve what is beyond his capabilities and energy." He noted that collective work was rooted in Iraq's history "thanks primarily to the conditions of agriculture and land and the type of irrigation projects." Saddam also emphasized the importance of spiritual values, saying, "The wounds of today's world are deep because it lacks spiritual values." He told the audience, "People in the entire world need you now to address the shortcomings resulting from their departure from spiritual principles." "Such principles," he went on, apparently without any trace of irony, "build a balanced, cooperative, and effective person, and not an evil one who wreaks havoc on humanity, as some evildoers in these circles do." (Simon Henderson)

RADICAL ISLAMIC GROUP TESTS BIOLOGICAL WEAPONS IN NORTHERN IRAQ. Ansar al-Islam, the radical Islamic group in northern Iraq which controls a handful of villages on the Iranian border, has been experimenting with biological weapons, but the U.S. decided the site was too small to justify a military strike, according to AP on 20 August. News agencies quoted unnamed American officials the same day as saying that "information indicated they might be experimenting with [the toxin] ricin, including experiments with barnyard animals and reports of experimenting on at least one human." Cyanide gas was also being experimented with.

Ricin is a biological toxin derived from the coat of a castor bean, which kills by inhibiting the body's ability to synthesize protein. There is no vaccine against it and no way of treating those affected by it. U.S. media reports said the tests by Ansar al-Islam included exposing a man to the toxin in a marketplace and then following him home, where he later died.

Ansar al-Islam has been reported to have links with the Al-Qaeda terrorist organization. It operates in an area of northern Iraq bordering Iran. Analysts have speculated that it has contacts with both Iraqi and Iranian intelligence. Its fighters have repeatedly clashed with forces of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which controls that area of northern Iraq.

On 22 August, a story in "The Washington Post" carried in the "International Herald Tribune" quoted U.S. intelligence officials as saying a handful of Al-Qaeda members have taken refuge in Iraq. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld was quoted as saying on 20 August: "I suppose that, at some moment, it may make sense to discuss that publicly. It doesn't today. But what I have said is a fact -- that there are Al-Qaeda in a number of locations in Iraq."

"The Washington Post" reported that Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz had said in an interview with "CBS News" that members of Al-Qaeda were operating in Iraq, but in the northern part of the country under the control of PUK leader Jalal Talabani, whom he described as "an ally of Mr. Rumsfeld." (Simon Henderson)

CHIEF INSPECTOR DOUBTS IRAQI COOPERATION. The head of the United Nations monitoring organization for Iraq, Hans Blix, said on 18 August that threats of a U.S. invasion will not persuade Iraq to allow investigators to verify whether it has weapons of mass destruction. Reuters quoted him as saying, "If the Iraqis conclude that an invasion by someone is inevitable, then they might conclude it is not very meaningful to have inspections."

Blix continued, "If inspectors are allowed in, and if they are given really unfettered access with no delays, then I think this might play an important role, and we would be eager to do that and to help towards a nonbelligerent solution." (Simon Henderson)

OIL PRICE APPROACHES $30 ON THREAT OF WAR. Repeated talk about a possible U.S. invasion of Iraq is one reason why the price of oil has been increasing in recent weeks, according to several press reports. Another reason is new data that shows that oil stocks are below levels of a year ago. A story in "The New York Times" carried by the "International Herald Tribune" on 21 August said, "The main worry created by the constant talk about invading Iraq is not the loss of Iraq's oil production in an attack but its effect on the stability of the Middle East and the possibility that Iraq would strike out against its neighbors Kuwait and Saudi Arabia and impede their ability to produce oil."

Prices for widely traded North Sea Brent crude, for delivery in October, have risen to more than $27 per barrel, although they slipped back slightly on 22 August. This is an increase of 50 percent from prices earlier in the year. "The New York Times" quoted some economists as saying this was already a drag on economic recovery in the U.S. The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) is due to meet in Japan next month to discuss the price and its production quotas. The oil ministers of the OPEC member states will be under pressure to increase quotas so that the price eases. Its current policy is for the price of oil, defined by a theoretical basket of its own members' crudes, to be allowed to fluctuate in the range of $22 to $28 per barrel.

A report in "The Washington Post" carried in the "International Herald Tribune" on 20 August, said U.S. oil companies have sharply slashed imports of Iraqi oil over the past five months, "contributing to a steep decline in Iraq's oil exports and cutting into President Saddam Husseyn's ability to siphon money from the United Nations-supervised oil-for-food program."

The newspaper cited U.S. diplomats and industry analysts as saying, "U.S. oil companies had been driven out of the Iraqi oil market because of Baghdad's demands for kickbacks and because a set of cumbersome UN purchasing procedures make it impossible for oil traders to determine the price of oil before buying it."

A UN expert on the Iraqi oil industry was reported to have told a UN Security Council committee that U.S. imports of Iraqi crude had fallen from about 1 million barrels per day five months ago to between 100,000 and 200,000 barrels per day. Last year Iraq accounted for more than 8 percent of U.S. oil imports, making it one of the top exporters to the U.S. ChevronTexaco, ExxonMobil, and Valero Energy have been stung by charges that they indirectly enriched Saddam by purchasing oil from intermediaries that may have been forced to pay kickbacks, the newspaper reported.

Both Iraqi and Russian officials have denied a report carried in the British newspaper "The Guardian" on 20 August, alleging that Russian officials have illegally given millions of dollars to Iraq "to secure oil purchases" from it. (Simon Henderson)

JORDAN DENIES IT IS LOOKING FOR ALTERNATIVES TO IRAQI OIL. Jordan is to continue importing oil from Iraq, Jordanian Minister of Energy and Mineral Resources Mohammad al-Batauinah told the Jordanian news agency Petra on 18 August. He said Jordan was not looking for alternatives, pointing out that the pipeline linking Saudi Arabia with Jordan is no longer fit to carry oil. The news agency said the minister expressed resentment over reports that considered the possibility of stopping Iraqi oil supplies to Jordan and Jordan taking precautionary measures in case of a military attack on Iraq. (Simon Henderson)

AUSTRALIA TO RESUME WHEAT EXPORTS TO IRAQ. Australia has mended fences with Iraq and agreed to resume wheat exports at normal levels from 2003. Iraq had cut imports by half after Australia had publicly supported U.S.-led military action against the regime of Saddam Husseyn. The agreement, negotiated by the national wheat exporter AWB, is conditional on Australia promoting diplomatic solutions to the current situation in Iraq.

A statement carried by Reuters on 20 August said, "The Iraqi Ministry of Trade confirmed in a formal agreement between the Grain Board of Iraq and AWB that Iraq will resume all of its Australian wheat imports for 2003 and beyond at normal levels, that is 2 million tons per annum, as long as Australia promotes diplomatic solutions to the current situation in Iraq."

Iraq is normally Australia's biggest wheat customer, taking imports worth about $440 million a year, while Australia is Iraq's biggest supplier. The arrangements for the sales come under the United Nations oil-for-food program.

An AWB delegation led by its managing director, Andrew Lindberg, had visited Iraq for talks with Trade Minister Mohammad Mehdi Saleh and the chairman of Iraq's grain board, Youssef Abdul-Rahman. Apart from concern at Australia's diplomatic position, Iraq had also been concerned about alleged contamination problems with the cargoes. Iraq had previously been refusing to unload four ships off the port of Umm Qasr because of claimed contamination, the news agency reported. (Simon Henderson)

KURDISH LEADER WELCOMES FOREIGN SUPPORT. One of Iraq's Kurdish leaders, Jalal Talabani, has given a long interview to the Saudi-owned, pan-Arab daily "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" following talks in Washington, D.C., between Iraqi opposition leaders and U.S. officials. In the interview, put on the newspaper's website on 18 August, Talabani, the leader of the PUK, was challenged on the absence at the Washington meeting of Mas'ud Barzani, the leader of the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP). He avoided a direct answer by saying that Barzani had sent Hoshyar Zebari, a political bureau member who is also his cousin, to the meeting. He denied that Turkey had withdrawn Barzani's passport but said the KDP's relationship was not good. He said the relationship of the PUK with Turkey is "normal and good."

Asked whether there would be a Kurdish state, Talabani replied: "No. There will be no geographic change. I believe there will be political changes. The U.S. wants a new world order that might start in the Middle East. I do not oppose this view." He went on to say that they had left with the impression there will be no military invasion. "There is insistence on change, but not on a military invasion. It might happen after two months or after one year."

Challenged to say he was against a U.S. military invasion, Talabani replied: "We prefer that the national opposition forces carry out the democratic change in Iraq. I would prefer to pause at the word 'against.' We do not prefer or support an American invasion of Iraq. But we cannot stop the U.S. or stand 'against' it."

The interviewer returned again to the question of a future Kurdish state. The Kurds "have the right to a state, but they cannot have one. Regional and international circumstances do not allow the creation of an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq. We, the Kurds of Iraq, believe that our interest lies in a unified, democratic Iraq. We can join the government in Baghdad and from there we can attain further rights to the Kurdish people, with Iraqi protection. So it is not inevitable for the Kurds to determine their future through separation and independence." (Simon Henderson)

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