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Iraq: U.S. Is Wearying In Battle Of Wits With Baghdad

Washington's silence in the face of recent Iraqi criticism of the sanctions policy is raising doubts about the U.S. administration's commitment to winning the world opinion battle over what to do about Baghdad.

Prague, 3 February 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Iraq and the West clashed yet again this week in their long-running war to sway public opinion over whether UN sanctions should -- or should not -- be maintained against Baghdad.

This time the battle was over pencils.

Baghdad held a ceremony to accept some 3.5 million pencils that Jordanian supporters had collected for Iraqi schoolchildren. Baghdad said that the collection was a defiance of UN attempts to ban Iraq from importing pencils because pencil lead contains graphite, a soft carbon used by some nuclear reactors.

The public relations coup -- intended to convince Arab countries that sanctions are being applied beyond reason -- caught the UN by surprise. UN spokemen told the press there is no ban on pencils and it is extremely unlikely that pencil graphite could be used for any military purposes.

But even as the UN scrambled to catch up with Baghdad, Washington made no official response to the Iraqi charges. That struck many analysts as unusual. It also led some to wonder if the U.S. administration is wearying in its constant battle of wits with Baghdad and losing its focus in the conflict.

An article in this week's "New York Times" -- which reported that Baghdad is secretly rebuilding military and industrial sites damaged by American and British air strikes some 13 months ago -- only heightened that feeling.

The article quoted unidentified U.S. defense officials as saying satellite images show Iraq has rebuilt many of the 100 installations hit by the raids, including missile factories or sites Washington has previously said were involved in the production of weapons of mass destruction.

But if Washington does indeed fear that Baghdad is rebuilding its military facilities, the U.S. administration has so far been strangely quiet about the subject.

Anthony Cordesman is a Mideast expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. He says Washington's apparent reluctance to tackle Iraq over the public relations and military challenges indicates the U.S. administration is increasingly in a quandary over what to do about Baghdad.

"American policy [for Iraq] has several different goals. One is military containment of [Iraqi President] Saddam Hussein, another is to prevent Iraq from returning as a major power with weapons of mass destruction and long-range missiles. A third is to establish a political climate where there is regional support for American policy, [and] the fourth is to find some way of producing a more effective government [in Iraq]."

But he says on all these counts, the administration seems to be at an impasse.

"In terms of military containment, we have been bombing sporadically for a year, and we have not been able to explain to the world why we are doing it and what we are accomplishing. It is not clear this is presenting any problems for Saddam Hussein's regime, but it is certainly producing problems for the Iraqi people and the American image ... This is a political game where we seem to lack leadership."

Cordesman says Washington's strategy of military containment, which included bombing Iraq in 1993, 1996 and 1998, has become difficult to pursue at a time when international support for sanctions -- notably from Russia, France and China -- is waning.

At the same time, Washington has sought over the past year to find a formula for returning arms inspectors to Iraq. But the analyst says that drive, too, is at an impasse. The United States and Britain successfully pressed the UN Security Council in December to offer Iraq a conditional suspension of sanctions if it cooperates on outstanding disarmament tasks, but Baghdad has shown no signs it will accept the deal.

Cordesman says that many in the U.S. administration now appear to regard Iraq as a dilemma best kept out of sight. He says that, as a result, the initiative in the battle over sanctions has increasingly passed to Baghdad, which has lost no opportunity to portray the United States as a villain.

"The perception in the region and most of the world is that the United States is blocking the flow of oil-for-food, is creating an economic disaster in Iraq. [But] the problem is within the Iraqi government. It is manipulating the oil-for-food program inside Iraq as a political weapon and delaying the flow of aid in ways which it is exploiting to blame the West ... And the overall image we are creating is one of the United States which simply goes on and on doing the same thing while the Iraqi people suffer and the regime grows more wealthy [through smuggling]."

Cordesman says that for Washington to regain the initiative in the Iraq crisis, the administration must now focus strongly on stating its policy goals and convincing world opinion to support them.

"The key to world opinion is the oil-for-food program. That is the beginning. We have to demonstrate to the world that the United States is doing everything it can to ensure that the oil revenues are used to help the Iraqi people ... The second thing is that it isn't enough simply to go on sporadically bombing. We need a clear doctrine ... We need to bomb decisively when there is a problem, a threat to the Kurds, a threat to Iraq's neighbors, or physical evidence of proliferation. [But most of all] we need to convince and educate the world in how serious the threat from Iraq's [weapons] proliferation is."

The analyst says the cost of what he calls Washington's failure to battle for world opinion can be seen in the increasing reluctance of the UN Security Council to form a strong front with the United States and Britain on returning arms inspectors to Iraq.

During December's vote in the Security Council, France, Russia and China abstained. And that lukewarm commitment, many analysts say, may have encouraged Iraq to simply ignore the UN resolution altogether.