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Iraq Report: December 28, 1998


28 December 1998, Volume 1, Number 4

HOW SUCCESSFUL WAS THE US-UK AIRSTRIKE? The 70 hours of bombing raids between 17-20 December flown by US and British air forces involved the launching of more than 400 Tomahawk cruise missiles and the destruction of over a hundred targets. According to some reports, some twenty army command posts, seven of Saddam's palaces and several plants capable of producing missiles were struck.

Yet in the wake of these attacks, Saddam's Iraq now has adopted an even more defiant tone. Saddam is still there and so is his government Among potential casualties of these attacks is UNSCOM. Several highranking officers of the Iraqi army were eliminated by Saddam's orders just prior to the air strikes. And in an interview with RFI on 24 December a spokeman for the Supreme Assembly ofthe Islamic Revolution doubts have emerged among the Iraqi opposition concerning the seriousness of US intentions with regard to toppling Saddam Husseyn's regime. Similar doubts have also arisen in Arab capitals.

All of this has led many people around the world to ask just how successful the attacks were. Some US officials have suggested that it will take several months to evaluate the impact of the strike on Iraq's ability to produce and deploy weapons of mass destruction. But a recent report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute on what UNSCOM had been looking for in Iraq provides a veritable checklist for evaluating the strike as more information becomes available.

According to the SIPRI report which was released in October 1998, UNSCOM was trying to find, among other things, some 17 tons of growth media for the production of biological warfare agents; 4000 tons of chemical warfare precursors; 750 tons of VX precursors; 100 al-Husseyn missiles; 31,000 CW munitions; and 20 R-17 Scud-B type missiles. Even this partial listing of Saddam's arsenal suggests that he had the ability to launch a major strike against his neighbors, but the SIPRI report emphasizes that his actual stocks of such weapons are probably larger than its list suggests. According to SIPRI, there are at least three reasons for this: Iraq had moved much of this out of the al Muthana State Establishment before UNSCOM ever arrived. Iraq never made a full accounting of its weapons after the 1991 war. And its claims to have destroyed 15,620 chemical munitions have never been verified.But as SIPRI notes the problem for UNSCOM has been even greater than that. Baghdad in the summer of 1997 blocked a round of UNSCOM inspections precisely when UNSCOM representatives were closing in on Iraq's program for the production of VX, a combination of tabun and sarin that is one of the deadliest nerve gases known. This is when the Iraq-UN Security Council standoff began. Unfortunately, as the SIPRI report concedes, even less is known about Iraq's current biological warfare capability. Some observers have suggested that Iraq may have produced up to 10 billion doses of anthrax, botulinum and aflatoxin, a figure that may be too low according to information that emerged following the 1995 defection of Saddam's brother-in-law, General Husseyn al-Kamal.But however large these stocks are, they are extremely dangerous because they remain at the core of Iraqi thinking about national security. For Saddam Husseyn, this arsenal of weapons of mass destruction enhances his country's sovereignty; and consequently, he seems certain to view any concessions to the international community on this point as tantamount to the destruction of Iraqi sovereignty. Consequently, any "concessions" by him on this point are either for show or are forced by circumstances.

And thus it is no surprise that Iraq has reserved to itself the right to "interpret" all UN resolutions on this point. On 11 December, for example, al-Thawra, the Ba'th Party newspaper, argued that Baghdad has "correctly implemented" UN resolutions and will do so in the future. But as recent events and the SIPRI report make clear, that is almost certainly not the case.

ARAB WORLD OFFERS BAGHDAD LESS THAN FULL SUPPORT. Whatever the physical results of the US-UK airstrike turn out to be, that action already has had significant political and diplomatic effects. An editorial writer in the Saudi Arabian capital summed up the ambiguous feelings many in the Arab world felt about the attacks when he wrote on 18 December that "even those who have opposed the continued US-British attacks on Iraq do not deny the fact that Baghdad's regime and its president were responsible for the current crisis." And that reaction, one strikingly different than many had expected, may ultimately provide the US and the UK with a diplomatic victory over Baghdad far more important than any military achievements on the ground. As Egyptian Foreign Minister Amr Moussa told the BBC, the popular reaction in many countries reflected concern about what on its face was a strike against a fraternal people and country in a crisis. But he continued, the reactions of governments and international organizations were inevitably more nuanced.

These reactions ranged from near total support of the UN position to surprisingly oblique support for Baghdad. Thus, the Secretariat of the Islamic World League in Mecca expressed "deep concern" regarding the repeated clashes between Baghdad and the UN Security Council concerning internationally banned weapons. And its secretary-general "urged Iraq to implement the Security Council resolutions."

Other Arab governments condemned the US-UK actions by emphasizing what they called the American "double standard" in the Middle East, demanding Iraq give up its weapons of mass destruction of program while supporting Israeli programs of the same kind.

Yemen, for example, released a statement on 17 December arguing that "the use of force, double standards, and the glaring selective interpretation of the resolutions of international legitimacy cannot achieve peace and security in the region."

The lack of a united Arab response to the US-UK actions drew a response from both Baghdad, the Iraqi diaspora and at least one Moscow commentator. On 21 December, Baghdad Radio commented that "the useless leaders in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait�seem determined to burn down all signs of Arabism."

A journalist at London's Al-Hayah, 'Abd-al-Bari 'Atwan, complained that there was no unity of view. He noted that "the Egyptian Government expressed its 'regret' about the US air strikes against Iraq, while Syria strongly 'denounced' this aggression and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia limited itself to remaining silent." And he complained that the positions of African and Third World countries had been stronger than the reactions of most Arab states with the "only demonstration condemning the US aggression staged in the Palestinian misery camps that are under Israeli occupation."

And Aleksandr Koretskiy pointed out in the 21 December issue of Moscow's Segodnya newspaper that Washington had achieved "a staggering" diplomatic success, even if its military ones remained "rather dubious." Specifically, he pointed out that "The US State Department has managed to achieve almost the impossible � not a single Arab country has voiced sharp criticism of Washington"

And that diplomatic victory, Koretskiy continued, forced Baghdad to withdraw its request for an emergency session of the Arab League scheduled for 20 December. Had that meeting been held, Koretskiy said that it would not have been able to adopt any statement concerning the US. But because of Yemen's criticism, the Arab League may ultimately decide to condemn the US and UK for the latest action.

IRAN OPPOSES US BUT FAILS TO BACK BAGHDAD. If the Arab world was backing away from Baghdad, Tehran was among its sharpest critics of the United States even while calling for the Iraqi authorities to comply with UN resolutions. While Iran has little sympathy for Saddam Hussein -- after all, he launched a major war against Iran a decade ago -- its leaders are even more concerned about anything that reinforces the US presence in the Middle East. And they are all too happy to call attention to what they see as an American double standard on the question of weapons of mass destruction.

On 17 December, Tehran condemned what it called "U.S. aggression" and called for the U.N. Security Council to stop the attacks "against a member state of the U.N. and the 55-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference." The same day, Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Hami Reza Assefi condemned the attacks noting that "It is quite unacceptable for us that certain states launch willful military attacks on a country."

Others in Tehran were even sharper in their criticism of the US. Expediency Council Secretary Mohsen Rezai, for example, said that if Iran is hit intentionally by U.S. missiles, America's navy will not leave the Persian Gulf whole. He said the attack by the U.S. and U.K. was of "Zionist origin."And Iranian state radio said that "America's haste to resort to force against Iraq is because the White House feels it has suffered setbacks and defeats in its bid to consolidate its international status." But the radio did criticize Iraq's leadership for failing to fulfill its U.N. obligations.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's view on the affair was provided at the Friday Prayers, where the sermon is dictated by his office. The Tehran sermon was given by Guardian Council spokesman Ayatollah Mohammad Emami-Kashani, who said "America and Britain did this rebelliously and arrogantly, without the understanding and endorsement of the Security Council. ... the attack by America and Britain and the crimes they are committing now are not endorsed and are condemned. May God rid the Islamic ummah of the evil of these arrogant tyrants..."

But at the same time, Emami-Kashani also condemned the Iraqi government for its failure to cooperate with the U.N. In Qum, Ayatollah Ali Akbar Meshkini-Qumi voiced similar sentiments, and when the crowd chanted "Death to America", he responded with "We hope that, God willing, your prayers will be granted."

Most sectors of the Iranian press condemned the attack on Iraq, although "Afarinesh" seemed more concerned about the impact on oil prices. "Keyhan" newspaper, which is supervised by the Supreme Leader's Office, condemned the attacks because America acted outside the U.N. framework, and it argued that this was an opportunity for the Organization of Islamic Conference to confront the West.

Other Iranian papers echoed this line. "Resalat," which is linked to conservative bazaari elements, complained about the attack on the Islamic world by "The West's Wild Fox". "Jomhuri-yi Islami," which reflects the more radical segment of the Islamic Republic, said the attacks were "illegal" because they were undertaken without U.N. permission, and the real reason for them was "to cover up the moral disgrace of the American president." And the government-affiliated, English-language "Tehran Times" said the attack was inspired by the "Zionists."

IRAQ'S ANTI-UNSCOM LOBBYING FAILS. Baghdad's diplomatic weakness after the US-UK strike was a continuation of its isolation in the weeks leading up to that event, a pattern some in the Iraqi capital found very worrisome.

Writing in the 8 December Baghdad newspaper Al-'Iraq, commentator Salah al-Mukhtar noted that "during earlier crises with UNSCOM, some Arab and foreign governments would intervene under the pretext of 'helping 'Iraq avert an inevitable military strike." But they have not done so this time, and despite fine words about Iraqi cooperation, they have not "fulfilled their promises to exert pressure on, appeal to, or mediate with the United States, Britain, and the Security Council."

That pessimistic assessment of Iraq's position reflected a series of developments. Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq 'Aziz, had said he had been hearted by 8 December talks in Moscow with Viktor Posuvalyuk, Yeltsin's Special Envoy for a Middle East Settlement, and Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov. But despite 'Aziz's statement, Moscow did little or nothing to intervene. Instead, Posuvalyuk said that it is important that Baghdad comply with UN resolutions and only then could the oil embargo be lifted.

The French government in which the Iraqi authorities had placed some hope also backed away from Baghdad: A French foreign ministry spokeswoman said that "Iraq must comply with the Special Commission so that the Commission can testify to this, that being the condition necessary for starting the comprehensive review. There is no other way for Iraq to achieve an end to the sanctions than the one outlined in the resolutions."

And even the Gulf Cooperation Council did not provide the expected support. Led by Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, the Council's membership denounced in no uncertain terms what it called Baghdad's latest efforts to block UNSCOM inspections. Saudi Prince 'Abdullah Bin-'Abd-al 'Aziz claimed at the GCC meeting that "the contrivance of successive crises and the pursuit of brinkmanship are not likely to bring an end to the sanctions, nor is that outcome any more likely to materialize by blackmailing the world by so cheaply parading the misery and suffering that the Iraqis are enduring, which, after all, are of Saddam Husseyn's own making."

IRAQI PREPARATIONS BEFORE THE STRIKE. While most Western attention focused on the cat-and-mouse game between Saddam and UNSCOM, the Iraqi government took a series of steps to prepare for war and its possible internal consequences. On 16 December, Baghad announced the establishment of four regional military commands "in order to provide what is needed to confront and destroy any foreign aggression and its related repercussions."

Commenting on this new structure in the 19 December Jerusalem Post, Arye O'Sullivan argues that it is one of "the first signs that a crack in the dictator's self-confidence has emerged" and represents Saddam Husseyn's efforts to prevent any move against him.

Saddam appointed the Takriti Staff General 'Ali Hasan Al-Majid commander of the Southern Region who O'Sullivan says is one of his "most ruthless loyalists". Al-Majid was responsible for the forceful transfer of civilians from Kuwait after Iraq occupied it in 1990. And he was also involved in the brutal suppression of supposedly anti-Saddam Shi'ites.

Consistent with this background, General Al-Majid quickly took action against dissident military elements, including the commander of the XI Mechanized Division in 'Amarah. According to Kuwait Radio on 20 December, the commander of that unit was executed because he felt that "the task of the army is to defend the homeland and not to confront the people."

A statement released by the anti-Saddam Supreme Assembly of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and published by Al-Hayah on 21 December also refers to the 'Amarah executions and what it described as a short-lived military revolt in the Al-Rashid camp. According to this report, five other high-ranking officers were executed in an action that the SAIRI implied was linked to its efforts.

In early December, the Supreme Assembly of the Islamic Revolution reportedly had decided to "step up" military operations and "use new weapons compatible with the current stage," London's Al-Hayah reported on 11 December. And at an undisclosed location, it supposedly held a conference including not only its own people but also members of the military wing of the Al-Da'wa Party, another Iran-sponsored Shi'ite Party.

That Saddam Husseyn and his regime were concerned about both the US-UK attack and the domestic opposition it might trigger was reflected in an Iraqi television report on 16 December. It noted that Saddam had chaired a joint meeting of the Revolutionary Command Council and the Iraq Command of the Arab Socialist Ba'th Party in order to review all measures for responding to the situation.

IRAQI CLAIMS OF SUPPORT FOR ARAB CAUSE DISCOUNTED. Al-Zawra, the weekly newspaper of the Iraqi Journalists Union, which is run by 'Udayy Saddam Husseyn, has attacked one of the leading journalists in the Arab world, Ibrahim Nafi, for his supposed "pleasure at the destruction of Iraq, which has been the spearhead for defending every honorable Arab cause." But like so many other official Iraqi media attacks, this one perhaps intentionally also misses the mark. Writing in Al-Zawra, Dawud Al-Farhan said that Nafi, the chief editor of the Cairo daily Al-Ahram, had defended UNSCOM's destruction of Iraq's weapons and its research facilities despite Iraq's support for other Arab states. But while some readers may have focused on Al-Farhan's support for UNSCOM -- which after all is responsible for finding and destroying only Iraq's weapons of mass destruction -- many in Baghdad were probably more outraged by the Cairo editor's observations about Iraq's past role in the Middle East. Al-Farkhan points out that Baghdad's claimed role of "defending every honorable Arab cause" has not been very distinguished. During the first three Arab-Israeli wars, for example, Iraq's contribution was virtually nil. And in the 1973 war, as Kanan Makiya points out in his study "Republic of Fear," Iraq sent two divisions to the Syrian front, but "the bulk of the army was held back for deployment against the Iraqi Kurds." In fact, Makiya concludes, "since the revolution the only army successes have been against tribesmen and defenseless civilians." Consequently, for Arabs as for everyone else, Al Farkhan's conclusion seems entirely reasonable: "If there are any grounds for joy, it is that is that every one of Iraq's weapons that is destroyed is one less that can used by Iraq's government against the Iraqi people."

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