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Central Asia: Leaders Look To UN, Not U.S., To Deal With Iraq

With a U.S.-led war against Baghdad looming, Central Asian leaders have repeatedly insisted that what happens in Iraq should be decided by the United Nations, not the United States. RFE/RL looks at some of the reasons why Washington's new allies in Central Asia oppose the concept of unilateral U.S. military action against Iraq.

Prague, 29 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- In his annual State of the Union speech last night, U.S. President George W. Bush warned that he is prepared, if necessary, to use the "full force" of the U.S. military to disarm Iraq, if the United Nations fails to act.

Despite closer relations with the United States that have been forged during the war on terrorism, the countries of Central Asia have not offered their support to Washington's position on Iraq, repeatedly declaring that the crisis should be solved by political and diplomatic means and in accordance with the United Nations Security Council.

Late last year, the foreign ministers from the member states of the CIS Collective-Security Treaty -- including Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan -- reiterated their belief in solving the Iraq problem by political and diplomatic means.

Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulazi Kamilov on 27 January also said the Iraq crisis should be resolved through the UN and other diplomatic channels, although he did not rule out the use of "other methods" if such efforts fail.

Both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have said they will not offer their facilities for use in any strikes against Iraq but only in support of U.S.-led antiterrorism operations in Afghanistan.

Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Askar Aitmatov recently declared that "concrete proof" that Iraq is harboring weapons of mass destruction is necessary before any use of military force and that such force must be sanctioned by the UN.

Serik Abdakhmanov, a member of the Kazakh parliament, seemed to summarize the opinions of many in the region about a possible U.S.-led war against Iraq when he said: "It was said long ago that a bad peace is preferable to a good war. This is why I consider Mr. Bush's statements irrelevant in today's developed world. I support the positions of Germany and France, which looks more appropriate in this case."

Germany and France have said they will not back a war against Iraq outside of the UN framework and believe the UN inspectors need more time to complete their work inside Iraq.

Steven Sabol is an assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina and an expert on Central Asian affairs. He noted that, despite their misgivings about war in Iraq, Central Asian governments nevertheless remain hesitant to openly criticize the United States. "They're taking a wait-and-see attitude to see which way the UN decides to go and what actions the United States might take. I think they're hesitant to be too critical of the United States because that could draw attention to their own regimes and the political suppression in the region. So they are, I think, remaining somewhat silent on the issue," Sabol said.

Alex Vatanka is editor in chief of "Jane's Sentinel: Russia and the CIS," a security-assessment publication based in London. He said Iraq is not a top priority for Central Asian leaders. "The way they have sided with Russia in calling for a [UN] resolution [authorizing force], or a sort of a compromise, or a final settlement on this issue through the UN, strongly suggests that they have a number of factors to contend with before they can shift their position away from Russia. Right now, they have more to lose by openly siding with the U.S. on the issue of Iraq than they have by going with Russia," Vatanka said.

Speaking yesterday in Kyiv, Russian President Vladimir Putin reiterated his view that any military action against Iraq should be decided through the UN Security Council, although he has warned that Moscow could "change its position" if Iraq causes problems for UN weapons inspectors.

Vatanka believes the Central Asian states are not risking much by siding with Russia since Moscow's views are largely shared by other members on the Security Council.

Internally, Central Asian governments also have to deal with majority Muslim populations, among which the legitimacy of any U.S.-led action in Iraq is being questioned. Analysts say it would be unwise for Central Asian leaders to further irritate public opinion, which is already upset over economic hardships in the region and political repression.

Tursunbek Akunov is chairman of the Human Rights Movement of Kyrgyzstan. He said the United States is preparing for war despite Iraq's cooperation with UN inspectors. "Previously, Saddam Hussein did not allow [the inspectors] to come, but now there are no obstacles. The experts can work everywhere. Even [presidential] palaces are opened for them. Inspectors didn't finish their work, and there were no reports of weapons [of mass destruction], but [the United States] is preparing for war. Like in Afghanistan, we are concerned about people who will suffer from the war, not Saddam Hussein. All Kyrgyz people are absolutely against that," Akunov said.

Sabol, however, believes Central Asian leaders are guided not so much by public sentiment and humanitarian issues as they are by regional security concerns. "When I was there in Kazakhstan in December, the sense that I got from people was that the United States needs to deal with Al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations before engaging in any war in Iraq. So I think the governments reflect that. They feel that the internal Islamist threat is far greater to their national interests than Iraq might be," Sabol said.

Local analysts have also raised concern about the effects of a war in Iraq on Central Asian security. At a roundtable discussion in Almaty last week, political scientist Dossym Satpaev, director of a risk-assessment think tank, said a war in Iraq may inflame extremist forces in the region.

In Tajikistan, three ecological organizations recently sent an open letter to U.S. Ambassador Franklin Huddle. In the letter, they express fear that a war in Iraq could result in humanitarian and environmental disasters, complicate the geopolitical balance in the world, provoke new conflicts and stir up public discontent against U.S. foreign policy.

According to Vatanka, the scenario that a U.S.-led war in Iraq will lead to instability in the Middle East could have repercussions in Central Asia. "I can see a link between instability in the Middle East, which then would impact Central Asia. It's not just unique to Central Asia. Instability in the Middle East will impact large parts of the world, and Central Asia is not going to be excluded from that," Vatanka said.

Sabol agrees, saying that a conflict in Iraq could lead to an increase in fundamentalist Islamic activity, which could result in greater support for domestic insurgencies within Central Asia.

In Afghanistan, Major General Hilmi Akin Zorlu of Turkey, commander of the International Security Assistance Force, has already ordered extra security precautions and intelligence work in advance of any U.S.-led attack against Iraq. He told "The Washington Post" that he fears an upsurge in terrorist attacks if the United States attacks Iraq.

On the economic front, analysts predict that a war in Iraq might reduce demand for oil and natural gas from the region, critical for the economies of Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. According to Satpaev, oil prices would probably decrease to $12 to $13 per barrel if Hussein is toppled, while this year's Kazakh budget uses $19 per barrel as its standard.

And in the longer run, the free flow of Iraqi oil to the world market could slow development of the two countries' own energy resources.

(Ainura Asankojoyeva of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service and Merkhat Sharipzhanov of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service contributed to this report.)