As 1999 ends, the UN has finally agreed on a new strategy for dealing with Iraq. But the agreement was reached amid a divisive debate and there is no certainty Baghdad will accept it. The year also saw new efforts by opposition groups to unite, as well as some unrest inside the country. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel reports on the main developments of the past year.
Prague, 23 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- After almost a year of off-and-on debate over how to return arms inspectors to Iraq, the UN Security Council finally agreed on a strategy this month.
The Security Council voted 11-0 to suspend sanctions on Iraq's importing of civilian goods if Baghdad cooperates with a new weapons monitoring commission. According to the plan, Iraq would have to complete some key disarmament tasks before the suspension would take effect. The suspension would then be renewable in 120-day periods so long as Baghdad continued to fully cooperate with arms monitors.
But the agreement did not come easily. The vote saw abstentions by three permanent Council members: France, Russia and China. All favor a milder approach to Iraq than that of the vote's key backers -- the United States and Britain.
France abstained because the resolution did not spell out exactly what disarmament measures Iraq had to meet before sanctions would be suspended. Moscow abstained because it wanted to make any suspension of sanctions automatically renewable unless the Security Council voted to reimpose them -- in effect lifting the sanctions altogether. Part of the two countries' logic was economic. Both are owed large debts by Baghdad which sanctions-struck Iraq is unable to repay.
Meanwhile, China took no strong position and followed Russia's lead in the voting.
Analysts say the divisions seen in the UN vote now set the stage for still more debates within the Security Council as the resolution faces its next test: persuading Baghdad to accept the terms.
Terrence Taylor of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London says he does not expect Iraq to agree to the resolution in its current form. Instead, he says, Baghdad is likely to take the abstentions by three permanent Security Council members as a sign that the resolution -- or at least the interpretation of its terms -- can first be weakened in Iraq's favor.
"The unfortunate division between the US and the UK on the one hand and the other permanent members of the Security Council ... sends a very strong signal to Iraq that they have a lot to play for ... Iraq can realize it now has room to negotiate. If there had been a consensus resolution [the Iraqis] would have been more or less compelled to accept it."
Taylor says that Washington and London now see their job as to increase French and Russian support for the just-passed resolution so that Iraq will regard it as a final offer.
He says the United States and Britain were surprised by France's apparent last minute decision to vote for the resolution only if Russia did so. But London and Washington decided to go ahead with a vote because they felt even a resolution with abstentions was better than none at all.
"In the end, particularly the Americans wanted to get on with this and not be drifting into next year without a resolution. They hoped the French would vote with them but in the very last minute the French decided to abstain and [maintain] their position that they would only vote for a consensus resolution."
Amid the debate over arms inspections, the UN also decided to remove the ceiling on its oil-for-food program, which governs how much oil Iraq can sell to buy humanitarian goods.
That step is intended to alleviate the heavy toll which UN trade sanctions impose on ordinary Iraqis. The UN Children's Fund, UNICEF, reported in August that since sanctions were imposed after Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait, the mortality rate has doubled for Iraqi children under five years of age in the government-controlled central and southern districts.
The report also showed the effects of the sanctions may be aggravated by Baghdad's own slowness in distributing the humanitarian goods it buys. UNICEF reported that in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq, where humanitarian aid is directly distributed by UN workers rather than Baghdad, child mortality has fallen over the same period.
The decision to remove the ceiling on oil-for-food sales came as the program turned into a playing card in the rush to find a new UN-Iraq policy last month. The uncertainty surrounding the debate caused the UN to twice extend the humanitarian program for just weeks at a time rather than renew it a full six months as usual.
Iraq refused the brief extensions, saying they were too short for planning oil sales and then cut off all of its 2.4 million barrels-a-day of exports for almost a month. The cut-off briefly sent oil prices to a nine-year high before Baghdad resumed exports when the UN again renewed the oil-for-food program for six months.
The year-long diplomatic wrangling over Iraq took place against a backdrop of almost daily confrontations between Iraqi air defenses and US and British planes patrolling no-fly zones over the country. Correspondents report that more Iraqi defenses have been destroyed in the showdowns than during the intensive four-day bombardment which marked the end of UN-Iraq arms cooperation last December.
Washington and London this year also sought to spark greater unity among the divided Iraqi opposition. Both would like to see an eventual regime change in Baghdad and creation there of a democratic and pluralistic government.
US and British diplomats several times this year visited northern Iraq to renew a 1998 peace agreement between its two main Iraqi-Kurd factions, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). The groups have ruled northern Iraq since it fell into a power vacuum after the Gulf War but have warred with each other much of that time over how to share power.
Last year's peace accord calls for the two Iraqi-Kurd factions to begin revenue sharing and re-establish a united legislature. But as this year ends, correspondents report they have made no movement toward elections and have yet to reach agreement on how to share their revenues.
With Washington's backing, many Iraqi opposition groups -- most of them in exile -- held their first large-scale congress in seven years in New York late this year. The meeting, under the auspices of the Iraqi National Congress (INC), was designed to promote their ability to work together politically -- something Washington has made a precondition for receiving any substantial amounts of US aid.
Salah Shaikhly, spokesperson for the Iraqi National Congress (INC), told reporters the gathering had served this purpose:
"We hope that with our display of unity, we have given hope to the Iraqi people that their freedom is within their reach."
However, the difficulties the groups face in uniting was evidenced by the refusal of the most influential group among Iraq's majority Shiite population to attend the gathering. The Tehran-based Supreme Council for Islamic Resistance in Iraq (SCIRI) boycotted the event because it was a US-backed effort.
Meanwhile, tensions between Saddam's regime and the Shiite population increased this year with the February assassination of a leading Shiite cleric. Many Shiites accused Baghdad of being behind the shooting of Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadek al-Sadr and his two sons by an unknown gunman in the city of Najaf. Analysts say that al-Sadr may have shown himself too independent-minded for Saddam by encouraging Shiites to break a ban on mass rallies at mosques in the Shiite holy city of Karbala. Baghdad has long feared any such rallies could catalyze Shiite anger over their historically being subordinated to Iraq's Sunni minority.
The assassination sparked three days of rioting in half a dozen cities and Iraqi opposition groups reported dozens of Shiites were killed in clashes with security forces. The unrest reflected both the Shiite's long-standing anger over Saddam's policy of excluding them from positions of power and their inability to successfully challenge him either politically or on the street.