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Iraq Report: November 13, 1998

13 November 1998, Volume 1, Number 1

You have before you the first issue of the RFE/RL Iraq Report. Prepared on the basis of materials gathered for and by RFE/RL's new Radio Free Iraq, this report -- which will appear every two weeks -- will seek to provide analytic perspective on events and trends inside Iraq and in the adjoining region. We look forward to hearing from you.

RFE/RL'S RADIO FREE IRAQ GOES ON THE AIR. When Radio Free Iraq began broadcasting on 30 October, Thomas Dine, the president of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, said that the new service's major objective is "to promote the values of democracy" among the Iraqi people. Among the values that the new service will advance, Dine said, are pluralism, the rights of people to speak and assemble freely, and the principle that governments should be responsive to the will of their citizens.

Dine noted that Radio Free Iraq will be unique among international broadcasters in that its Arabic language broadcasts to Iraq will focus specifically on developments in that country rather than on those in he Arab world as a whole. He pointed out that RFI's broadcasts will not be "a means of propaganda" for the United States government but instead will bring accurate news and responsible commentary to the Iraqi people in a timely fashion.

Asked why RFI was part of RFE/RL, Dine said that this reflected decisions by members of the United States Congress and President Bill Clinton. "Leaders on Capitol Hill," Dine said, "felt that Radio Free Europe is the organization most able to transmit the values of democracy to Iraq." And the RFE/RL president said he was confident that the staff of RFI would fully justify Congressional confidence.

IRAQ CRITICIZES NEW SERVICE. Like Tehran concerning the launch of RFE/RL's Farsi Service, Baghdad was sharply critical of the decision to begin Radio Free Iraq. Iraqi Foreign Minister Sa'id al-Sahhaf told journalists that his government had informed the Czech authorities that Prague's willingness to allow RFI to operate on Czech territory would have a negative impact "on economic and trade ties between the two countries." And on 8 November, Radio Baghdad insisted that RFI would not have any impact on the Iraqi people: "If they think they can influence the morale and fighting spirit of the Iraqi people, or their solidarity with its courageous leadership, the Americans are kidding themselves," the broadcast said. And also like Tehran, Baghdad has recalled some of its personnel from its trade mission in the Czech capital.

But one close observer of the Iraqi scene has suggested that the meaning of Baghdad's actions may be very different. Writing in the 21 October Al-Zaman newspaper, which is published in London, Mahdi al-Sa'd suggested that Baghdad's moves should not be seen in isolation from a broader pattern of shifting Iraqi representatives about. Al-Sa'd suggested that the latest moves by Iraq "are aimed at filling diplomatic posts with an intelligence team fully able to confront new developments and especially the activities of Iraqi opposition groups."

"Since Saddam took the reigns of power," al-Sa'd continued, " it has been common knowledge that Iraqi embassies have been centers for the security and intelligence services" rather than genuine diplomatic posts.

AN END TO THE ERA OF INSPECTIONS? Saddam Hussein bears primary responsibility for the collapse of the UN-mandated inspection regime. He and his officials have done everything they could to prevent UNSCOM officials from conducting the inspections necessary to ensure that there are no weapons of mass destruction either in existence or being developed in Iraq. And his intransigence has forced the United States to consider the possibility of employing military force to compel the Iraqi leader to comply.

But another reason that the era of inspections may be over is that many governments around the world either believe that Iraq has been punished enough, that military action is somehow inadmissible in this case, and that problems with UNSCOM itself have reduced its utility.

One indication of the notion that military action should beavoided at virtually all costs came on 12 November. On that date, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Viktor Posuvalyuk and the Iranian ambassador in Moscow, Mehdi Safari, issued a joint appeal calling for the peaceful resolution of the Iraqi crisis within the framework of the UN. And just as Moscow had done in the run-up to the Desert Storm operation in 1991, the Russian government dispatched a senior official, this time its defense minister, to the region to discuss the crisis.

But although these high-profile objections have received a great deal of attention and although the complaints of some former UNSCOM workers have also been much covered, an issue that Iraq hopes to use to limit support for any American action has so far remained largely in the shadows.

Speaking on Iraqi television on 7 October, Saddam Hussein's advisor, Lt. Gen. Amir al-Sa'di said that efforts by laboratories in the United States and France to demonstrate that UNSCOM had found tracer amounts of chemicals in warheads brought back from Iran was "merely a face-saving allegation." He claimed that these findings were "fabricated" in order to "distort world public opinion."

The general's suggestions were amplified by Iraqi Prime Minister Tariq Aziz who said that the "game" that some Europeans were playing by going along with the American findings is a "high-risk" one and something they would regret. While his comments received little attention in the United States, they were covered in the European media.

That fact had the result that the Iraqis hoped for: A French foreign ministry official said she was "not aware" of any French finding of nerve gas in trace amounts. And in any case, she added, Paris expected to be informed by UNSCOM. Other French officials made it clear that Paris hopes to end the sanctions that have been imposed on Iraq.

Not only does the question of finding evidence of such weapons pose a problem for maintaining international agreement on any action against Iraq, but it suggests that this issue is precisely the one Baghdad will press internationally in order to seek to avoid any military action against itself.

KUWAITI WARNS OF "IRAQI PSYCHOLOGICAL WARFARE." Kuwaiti military officials have suggested that a statement reportedly released by Iraqi Ayatollah Mohammed Baqr al-Hakim is part of a Baghdad-inspired psychological war against Kuwait. The Iraqi Shia leader had suggested in early October that Iraqi forces were approaching the Kuwaiti border. While Saddam Hussein's forces have been operating in the southern portion of the country, Kuwaiti officials have concluded that the suggestion that they were moving toward the Kuwaiti border was disinformation designed to intimidate Kuwait.

SADDAM EXPANDS "ETHNIC CLEANSING" ACROSS IRAQ. Saddam Hussein continues to expand his repression at home even as he refuses to comply with the internationally mandated inspections regime. According to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, Saddam's forces are now targeting not only Kurds but also Turkomans and Assyrians as part of his continuing campaign of ethnic cleansing through Arabization and deportation of non-Arabs from particular regions.

Baghdad's current wave of ethnic cleansing has included the renaming of regions to stress their Arab rather than non-Arab connections, the designation of various regions as military and security zones from which groups can be expelled by the authorities, and the mining of particular regions in order to restrict transit and prevent the return of those removed from their traditional places of residence.

While Saddam Hussein appears to have increased this form of repression in recent months, Arabization and forcible migration policies are nothing new in modern Iraqi history. In 1963, for example, Baghdad began a program of Arabization in Kirkuk, expelling local Kurds and bringing in Arabs. By the 1970s, this policy had been expanded to include Mosul nad Khanaqin. Moreover, the authorities openly discriminated against non-Arabs in the educational system, civil administration, and even in the granting of Iraqi citizenship. One specialist on Kurds in Iraq has concluded that Baghdad has systematically denied Iraqi citizenship to thousands of Kurds long resident there.

AN ETHNIC RUBIK'S CUBE. The ongoing search for the elusive leader of a radical Kurdish Party in Turkey highlights the lack of correspondence between political and ethnographic borders around Iraq, the large number of players who immediately become involved on any particular issue, and hence the extraordinary difficulties the countries of the region face in resolving such problems.

In early September, the Turkish government demanded that the Syrian authorities turn over to them the leader of the radical Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), Abdullah Ocalan. But this apparently discreet request rapidly came to involve not only Turkey and Syria but also Lebanon, Russia, Armenia and Iraq, each of which has a sizable Kurdish minority with links to Kurds elsewhere and each of which has a distinctive policy in dealing with this community.

The central figure in this case has a most interesting biography. Born near Ankara in 1948, Abdullah Ocalan, sometimes known as Apo, formed the PKK in November 1978 and launched a guerrilla war against the Turkish authorities that continues to this day. But both because the Kurdish community extends beyond Turkey's borders and because many countries have an interest in making use of the Kurds for their own ends, Ocalan and his party have become far more than a domestic Turkish issue.

Turkey's demand that the Syrians extradite Ocalan was based on what Ankara believed was strong and convincing evidence that Ocalan was still in Damascus. This evidence came from a captured PKK activist who said that he had been trained in a series of special schools in the Biqa valley of Lebanon, Damascus, where he had met Ocalan, and in northern Iraq, where he had worked with another Kurdish leader, Jalal Talabani.

But despite this testimony, Syria continued to deny that Ocalan was on its territory.

Nonetheless, the issue was considered sufficiently serious and the possibility of a Turkish-Syrian conflict so great that both Egyptian and Iranian officials engaged in shuttle diplomacy to try to work things out. Representatives of both mediating countries told the Turks that Ocalan was not in Turkey. But they were not able to say just where in fact he was.

Then, at the end of October, the PKK reported that there had been an attempt to assassinate Ocalan in northern Iraq. Such a location was entirely plausible. Ocalan has been trying to achieve a reconciliation with Masud Barzani's KDP in Iraq. And he reportedly has approximately 2,000 armed PKK fighters in Iraqi Kurdistan as well as a mobile unit near Tell 'Afar. But subsequent reports made it clear that the Ocalan in northern Iraq this time was not the Ocalan the Turks were looking for.

Meanwhile, the Israeli Defense Forces told the Jerusalem Post that they had evidence that the elusive Ocalan was now in Russia, also a plausible report because there are significant Kurdish activist groups located there as well. Again, the Turks found this persuasive. They even said that they had located him in a place called Odintsovo, approximately 10 km from Moscow. The Turkish Foreign Ministry asked the Russian government for his extradition, but the Russians replied that Ocalan was not in Russia and would not be allowed to remain on Russian territory should he attempt to return.

The Turks were not satisfied. Not only did the Turkish media continue to play up reports of Kurdish activities in the Russian capital, they cited the hearing of the Duma Geopolitical Committee on Ocalan's activities as evidence. That body reportedly adopted a resolution condemning Turkey's "threats against PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan," MED-TV, a pro-PKK Kurdish satellite television station based in London, reported on 16 October.

According to Turkish government officials, Ocalan had left Russia and moved to a Russian military base in Armenia. Such a report also seemed plausible to many. Armenia had been a locus of PKK activity in the past and thus it might be reasonable that Ocalan would return there.

But now Ocalan may have revealed himself, if not where he is then where he wants to go. According to a widely reported declaration, Ocalan has requested asylum in Russia. The Duma overwhelmingly approved his application by a vote of 298 to 1. But the Russian government may not respect that decision. Russian officials told the Anatolia agency that they would not "shelter" Ocalan in Russia regardless of the Duma decision.

And so Ocalan may not yet have a permanent home. Instead, he may be forced to move among the various Kurdish communities in various countries, including Iraq, serving now one group or government and now another.

IRAQ'S WATER PROBLEM BECOMES POLITICAL. Last month, the Iraqi National Assembly denounced what it viewed as Turkey's efforts to use its control of the headwaters of rivers that provide Iraq with much of its potable water as a weapon to advance its own interests.

On 4 October, Turkish State Minister Salih Yildirim said that Turkey did not intend to use its Southeastern Anatolian Project, which includes the construction of a dam on the Euphrates, as "a strategic weapon" but rather as "a peace project" that would bring Turkey, Syria, and Iraq together. But neither of the latter states was convinced by this, and Baghdad said that Turkey was acting as if it could completely ignore the rules for the shared use of river water.

While the issue of just what such rules are remains largely open, Iraq bases its argument on access to water in the Tigris and Euphrates on what it calls its "acquired rights" to "ancestral irrigations," terms that are subject to varying interpretation. Baghdad argues that these terms mean that each of the three countries involved should get an equal share. But under a 1987 protocol, Turkey had promised to supply a monthly average flow of 500 cubic meters per second at the Syrian border. But with the completion of a series of water projects in Turkey since that time, Iraq argues that Turkey must increase this to 700 cubic meters per second.

According to Iraqi calculations, the average flow of the Euphrates is approximately 1000 cubic meters per second. Thus Baghdad's proposals would allow Turkey to retain approximately one-third of the flow with Syria and Iraq dividing the other two-thirds equally between themselves. But Ankara has not yet accepted this Iraqi calculation.

Unless the three riparian states can agree, each is likely to view the actions of the other two as a threat to its national economy and even security. And because Iraq is the furthest downstream, its concerns on these issues are likely to be the greatest and thus make it the least willing to seek any compromise.