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Iraq: Baghdad Ties Arms Inspection To Israel's Nuclear Program

Iraq has dusted off an old argument for keeping arms inspectors out of the country, saying the UN has no right to look for nuclear weapons programs in Iraq so long as it does not do the same in Israel. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel looks at the Iraqi strategy.

Prague, 9 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Iraq usually advances only two main arguments why the UN should lift all sanctions immediately and stop worrying about sending arms monitors back into the country.

One is that the sanctions -- now more than 10 years old -- have inflicted unacceptable levels of hardship on ordinary Iraqis and it is now time to end them for humanitarian reasons.

The second argument is that Baghdad has already voluntarily met the goals of the UN sanctions -- which were to force it to destroy all weapons of mass destruction -- and so prolonging the measures is unnecessary.

The first of those arguments, that the sanctions should end for humanitarian reasons, has won a large worldwide hearing.

Three permanent UN Security Council members -- China, France, and Russia -- say the sanctions should be eased or lifted completely, and many other countries agree. That has put pressure on the U.S. and Britain to ease some of the commercial bans on Iraq if they want to tighten international enforcement of bans on selling military items to Baghdad.

By contrast, Iraq's assurances that it has already disarmed have had much less success in the international community. The UN has regularly rejected the veracity of the evidence that Baghdad has submitted and remains committed to returning arms inspectors, whom Iraq has barred for more than two years.

But Iraq also has a third, less frequently heard argument that it periodically makes to underline its refusal to cooperate over arms inspections. Baghdad says that arms monitors should only come back in the context of a regional disarmament effort, which Iraq says must start with UN inspections of Israel's nuclear program.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf made that case when he visited the UN last week to discuss the deadlock over weapons inspections with UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. He tied his argument to a 10-year-old Security Council resolution that mentions the goal of establishing a zone in the Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction.

Sahaf's statement appeared aimed at gaining support from other Arab and regional states that worry about Israel's nuclear program. Since the 1960s, Israel has maintained a deliberate policy of ambiguity about its nuclear potential, neither confirming nor denying that it has constructed warheads at its secret Dimona nuclear plant in the Negev desert.

But if Sahaf's statement was meant to open a new front in convincing regional states to push harder than many already are doing to ease or lift the UN sanctions, there are few immediate signs it is getting much notice.

To gauge regional reaction, our correspondent asked Nabil Abdel Fattah of Cairo's Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies if Sahaf's proposal had received much attention there.

Fattah said it has not because few Egyptians see the argument as new. Cairo and other Arab capitals already have long advocated banning nuclear weapons in the region, making the Iraqi statement seem superfluous. Fattah said:

"No, [because] at the same time Egypt is presenting a declaration by President [Hosni] Mubarak to make this area free from chemical weapons and nuclear weapons. The Egyptian government and also the Egyptian intellectuals are trying [already to reach that goal] if possible."

He continued:

"For President Mubarak's foreign policy, it is a main objective ever since the beginning of the 1990s until now. But [the statement] from the Iraqi foreign minister is just a play, an argument."

Last year, Egypt and other Arab nations unsuccessfully pressed a UN conference on nuclear disarmament to identify Israel formally as a nuclear power and force it to open its facilities to international inspections.

But if Sahaf's argument at first seems superfluous, it may still serve a larger Iraqi goal. Baghdad is now going all-out to convince regional public opinion that the UN-Iraq crisis and the Israeli-Arab conflict are very closely linked.

Iraq initiated that strategy when UN sanctions were imposed in the wake of its 1990 invasion of Kuwait. But the effort has gained new momentum with the recent breakdown of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

The breakdown has been marked by the start of a second Palestinian intifada, or uprising, in which more than 400 people have died over the past half year. The unrest also has ushered in a new Israeli government headed by Ariel Sharon, the man whom Arabs say touched off the crisis by visiting a holy site in Jerusalem.

Since the new intifada began, Iraq has repeatedly sought to appear as a frontline state in the conflict. Saddam Husseyn has provided free medical assistance in Iraq for severely injured Palestinians and made available $10,000 grants for the families of Palestinians killed in the clashes. In addition, Saddam's regime has organized mass registrations among Iraqis to raise armies of volunteers who, it says, are ready to attack Israel if an Arab country bordering the Jewish state would only let them through.

By contrast, other Arab countries have been much slower to respond to the new intifada. The 22-member Arab League met in Cairo in October to establish compensation funds for Palestinian deaths and injuries, but Palestinian officials complain they have yet to see the money.

With such gestures, Saddam has convinced large parts of the Arab public that he is the only head of state defending Arab interests against Israel. And Saddam's enhanced image in the Mideast has in turn helped him portray the United States and Britain as maintaining the sanctions for the sole purpose of keeping Iraq and the Arabs weak.

Fattah says that today anger over Israel and anger over the humanitarian cost of the sanctions have joined in fueling popular Arab demands to end the trade bans on Iraq.

"From two years ago, the anti-UN sanctions [sentiment has grown] for several reasons. [Primarily,] there is a linkage usually [made] between the position of the UN and U.S.A. and [other] Western countries [regarding] Israeli occupation of Arab lands and the other policies in the area. Whether this connection is true or not is another question, but this is the collective perception."

The growth of that perception marks a considerable success for Iraq's regional strategy of transforming the Iraq problem and the Israeli-Arab problem into a single issue. It also goes a long way toward explaining why Baghdad now wants any new arms monitoring of Iraq to hinge upon arms inspections in Israel.