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Iraq Report: November 27, 1998

27 November 1998, Volume 1, Number 2

IRAQ'S DIPLOMATIC MOVES. During the recent crisis between Baghdad and Washington, both sides intensely lobbied the countries of the Middle East. Each side is able to claim some success.

Pressed by Washington, the Damascus Declaration countries -- the Persian Gulf states plus Egypt and Syria -- on 12 November called upon Iraq to reconsider its decision suspending cooperation with UNSCOM. The Doha communique stressed that "the Iraqi government was responsible for any complications resulting from the fact that it has not reconsidered its decision." The complications being referred to were the possible U.S. air strike.

This temporary alliance of interests was reached with much hard work and some difficulties. At the meeting of the Damascus Declaration countries, "Al-Hayah" reported on 13 November, there had been much unspecified "disagreement over how to end the crisis, but this was later contained."

In response to the American and UN demands, Baghdad sought to unify the Arab world behind Iraq. In the 12 November issue of the Baghdad newspaper "Al-Qadisiyah", former Iraqi Culture and Information Minister Hamid Yusif Hammadi said -- somewhat prematurely as it turned out -- that "the Iraqis and the Arab masses want their countries to announce that if a military aggression is launched against Iraq, then they will not continue to observe the sanctions on Iraq...The battle, which will be waged, is not because Iraq possesses or does not possess banned weapons; it is a battle to subjugate Iraq to U.S. and Zionist interests and ambitions."

The timing and content of this article suggests that Iraq may have been on the verge of making a major miscalculation, one based on a misreading of the world's reaction to the likelihood that Saddam has been building an arsenal of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. As subsequent events showed, Saddam had only two objectives: the restructuring of UNSCOM and the lifting of sanctions. As the crisis intensified, it also became clear that the United States was very much divided on the wisdom of launching an attack on Iraq. While some wanted to go ahead with the attacks, others argued, successfully so far, to continue the pressure on Iraq. The second group argued that bombing would likely entail many civilian casualties and would not necessarily destroy Saddam's weapons. On 14 November, the day scheduled for the start of the air attack, Iraq sent a letter to Kofi Annan stating that UNSCOM could resume its inspections immediately. An 'annex' to the letter outlined what appeared to be Iraq's demands to secure its compliance. Several commentators have suggested that the letter came when it did because Iraq had advance word of the date of the planned attack. Madrid's "ABC" reported four days later that diplomatic sources had told that paper that "Paris intervened diplomatically before [Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister] Tariq Aziz to make it clear that a full-blooded attack was imminent." The United States initially rejected the Iraqi letter because of the terms contained in the annex. Washington indicated that it wanted Iraq's unconditional compliance. Baghdad responded that the annex was not obligatory, only a set of desiderata for future consideration. But in fact, it was far more than that: It marked the start of a new Iraqi diplomatic counteroffensive.

Iraqi Vice President Taha Yasin Ramadan made Baghdad's first official response. He told Qatar al-Jazirah Space Television on 15 November that Baghdad believed the American statement showed that the U.S. was still plotting against Iraq. "The world and especially the other members of the United Nations Security Council must consider what it means when one of the permanent members of that body unequivocally declares through its president that it has a plan and a scheme to support the opposition and topple a regime," the Iraqi vice president said.

The Iraqi "annex" widely published on November 14 was also dispatched as a letter to the Russian, Chinese and French governments. It made a series of demands: First, Baghdad indicated that it wanted the UN to conduct a comprehensive review of its status "in a very short time" after UNSCOM and the IAEA resume their normal activities. Second, the annex argued that evidence alone be the sole criterion of decision making and that the Security Council either lift or reduce the sanctions according to what has been fulfilled. And third, the annex specified that "the question of (UNSCOM chief Richard) Butler and the structure of UNSCOM" should be reexamined, diplomatic language for firing Butler and revamping UNSCOM.

France and Russia had never supported the military option but had gone alone with other members of the Security Council because Saddam was so blatantly flouting its resolutions. But almost immediately after the Iraqi letter, both countries began to lobby in favor of giving Iraq yet another chance to make good on its commitments. And their position shift was repeated by a number of Gulf states, including the United Arab Emirates. The foreign minister of the that country said on 15 November that it was now important to "give diplomatic efforts a greater chance" to work.

The UAE had been one of the signatories to the Doha communique, and its shift in position suggested that the loosely-knit alliance between the Gulf States and the United States has begun to fall apart. And in light of that, many Iraqis, even those opposed to Saddam, asked in the words of the title of an article in the 16 November "Al-Hayah" newspaper: "Defeat? What Defeat?"

That article's author, Salamah Ni'mat, goes on to say that "Washington must understand that as long as the Iraqi regime is in power, it cannot lose a battle, war, a confrontation because its battle is to remain in power, a battle which, thus far, Washington does not seem to want to fight."

IRAQ MOVES DIPLOMATS. During the last few weeks, Baghdad has engineered the largest reshuffling of its diplomatic corps since the end of the Gulf War. At least 25 senior diplomats have been moved, including its permanent representative to the United Nations. Saddam Hussein recalled Nizar Hamdoon from that post, replacing him with Said al-Moussawi.

Perhaps the most intriguing change concerns the so far unsuccessful recall of Barzan al-Tikriti, who had been the Iraqi representative to the UN Human Rights Organization. Formally recalled from Geneva in September, Al-Tikriti so far has refused to return. He was allowed to remain until the end of November because his wife was being treated in Switzerland -- unsuccessfully as it turned out -- for cancer.

Some observers argue that there is more to this than meets the eye. Mahdi al-Sa'id, an Iraqi writer in Britain, suggested in the 21 October "Al-Hayah" newspaper that Saddam wanted to humiliate him simply for personal reasons or that al-Tikriti was outraged by several other diplomatic moves.

Whatever the truth of these widely-shared speculations, there have been numerous reports that al-Tikriti is locked in a long-running conflict with Saddam's son Udayy. And it is known that al-Tikriti has rented a new apartment and is making plans to travel to some Central American country. According to al-Sa'id, al-Tikriti "is not sure that the conditions required for his personal security are available" either in Iraq or elsewhere in the Middle East.

IRAQ'S MOVES AND IRAN'S REACTIONS. Saddam's latest conflict with the United Nations and the United States has put Iran in the somewhat anomalous position of supporting the international consensus against Baghdad and for a peaceful resolution of the crisis. There were at least three reasons for its position: Tehran is clearly nervous about the build-up of American forces in the gulf. Moreover, it hopes to expand trade with Iraq. And finally, Tehran is worried about the fate of its Shia coreligionists in Iraq.

In his Friday sermon on 13 November, Secretary of the Guardian Council Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati criticized the U.S. presence in the region but called on Baghdad to "comply with the UN resolutions in order to stop the presence of foreign forces in the Persian Gulf region."

The daily "Iran News", which reportedly reflects the views of ex-President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, said on 10 November that the crisis was part of Washington's ploy to maintain its presence in the region. By allocating money to Iraqi opposition groups, the newspaper continued, "the U.S. is exploring fresh ways to preserve its dominating policies in the region." A week later, the same paper observed that "If Washington and London attack Baghdad, with or without UN consent, an ominous precedent will be set which will eventually affect all the nations of the world." Other Iranian news outlets echoed this line.

But Iran is obviously concerned about more than geopolitics. In late October, Iran's commerce minister visited Baghdad to discuss trade exchanges, and during an early November visit to Ahvaz, Rafsanjani pushed for expanded cross-border trade. Moreover, Iran is clearly worried that any armed conflict could disrupt lucrative oil smuggling from Iraq via Iran. And last summer, Saddam Hussein restored Iranian access to Shia shrines.

THE IRAQI OPPOSITION: WHO, WHERE, AND HOW STRONG? The passage of the Iraq Liberation Act and President Bill Clinton's suggestion on the need to change the Iraqi government -- that is, to get rid of Saddam Hussein -- has prompted many Americans as well as others to ask more insistent questions about the nature of the Iraqi opposition, the ways in which outside powers might help them, and the impact of Saddam Hussein's removal on the future of Iraq and the Middle East more generally.

No one knows very much about the size and strength of the opposition to Saddam Hussein inside Iraq or about how much influence Iraqi groups abroad have at home. Two domestic opposition groups that appear significant but may not be in a position to directly challenge Saddam are the ethnically based Kurdish Democratic Party in the north and the Shiite Supreme Assembly for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq led by the Ayatollah al-Hakim.

At present, the Kurdish movements are the best organized and at least in public the most willing to work together. The Washington-brokered agreement between Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and Mas'ud Barzani's Kurdish Democratic Party pledges the two to work together in ways that do not threaten the territorial integrity of Iraq. Whether these groups will live up to this agreement, of course, remains an open question.

Beyond that, there is little information about opposition groups in Baghdad itself or about how many Iraqis would join an effort to topple Saddam. Some Iraqi groups abroad as well as many Western commentators have suggested that most of the Iraqi population would back such an effort, but neither group provides much evidence for its assertions.

In addition to these groups, there are the tribes. Although they had begun to lose their influence in the decades before Saddam came to power, they may now have recovered some of it as Saddam himself has come to rely on the Sunni tribes. Indeed, Amatzia Baram, one of the closest Western observers of the Iraqi scene, notes that past incidents of disloyalty to Saddam almost always had a tribal basis. But how they might cooperate and even the extent of their disloyalty remains far from clear.

In the Iraqi diaspora, the most important group is the Iraqi National Congress (INC), to judge from the coverage it has received in the international press. At one time, the INC appeared to have substantial assets within Iraq, but how many it has at present is a matter of dispute. It does appear to have a relatively elaborate intelligence network in country. Another diaspora group is the Iraqi National Accord (INA or Wifaq), a successor organization to one of the opposition groups formed by Western intelligence agencies a number of years ago. Its present resources are unknown.

But, in some sense, a discussion of these political groupings misses the point. Saddam has extremely good security and so far has been able to quell any form of organized opposition within his inner circle. That circle, those who control Saddam's most important assets -- the Republican Guard, the Mukhabarat (intelligence), and the weapons of mass destruction -- where precisely where Saddam would have to be attacked. They are the instruments of his power, but whether there is any support within them for a move against the Iraqi dictator also remains uncertain.

Given this murky situation inside Iraq, the question inevitably arises as to what, if anything, an outside force might be able to do. Could any action taken by a foreign power unite the opposition or would it simply allow Saddam to play on national patriotism? The answer to that also remains open and subject to intense debate in the West.

But an even greater debate concerns what would happen were Saddam overthrown. While most analysts appear to agree that this would likely end the Iraqi involvement with weapons of mass destruction, they diverge on what else Saddam's departure might mean. Some suggest that it would lead to the dismemberment of Iraq itself, possibly setting off a regional chain reaction that would create even larger problems. But others reject that view.

And just as with the case with assessments of the Iraqi opposition, many of the judgments about outcomes appear to reflect the preferences of those making them rather than a survey of the few available facts.

THE PKK AND IRAN: A TOOL AND A PROBLEM. Even as it attracts ever more attention in the international press thanks to the detention of its leader, Abdullah Ocalan, the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) is doing ever less well on the ground. But its defeats in Turkey and Iraq may be making its expanding presence in Iran more important and more dangerous.

Turkish army units and the forces loyal to Mas'ud Barzani's Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) are forcing increasingly more PKK fighters into Iran. Many of those now fleeing the area had recently been expelled from Syria, which took this step in order to prevent Turkish military action against Damascus.

As a result, the relationship between the PKK and Iran has become increasingly important. According to one report, the PKK now has up to 16 camps in Iran as well as communications bureaus in Urumiyeh, Mashhad, Qom, Ahvaz, and Bandar-e Bushehr. The center at Urumiyeh is symbolically important: That city was the capital of the Kurdish Republic of Mahabad, which flourished under Soviet protection for a brief period at the end of World War II.

Turkish officials again on 6 November called on Tehran to distance itself from the PKK, arguing that the Kurdish group is using bases on Iranian territory to launch attacks on Turkey. As it has in the past, the Iranian government has denied these charges and claimed that Turkey was seeking to interfere in Iran's internal affairs.

The presence of the PKK in Iran has a long history. A southern Azerbaijani emigre paper claimed in October 1996 that already at that time, Kurds had begun to flee into Iran as a result of the conflict between the PKK, which has enjoyed Iranian support, and the KDP, which has had the backing of Iraq.

But the influx of Kurds has exacerbated the already tense relationship between Tehran and the ethnic Azeri population in the region -- especially because the Azeris are aware that Tehran has been careful to prevent any massive resettlement of Kurds in the Farsi portions of Iran and because they know that they must now compete with the Kurdish newcomers for land and other resources. This conflict may have broader and potentially dangerous consequences soon: several pipelines pass through the region, including one carrying Turkmen natural gas to Turkey. And thus Turkish pressure on the PKK, pressure that has forced units of the latter into Iran, may have an impact on Ankara that few anticipated.

THE PKK'S RUSSIAN CONNECTION. Iran is not the only country which is now having to deal with the PKK in a new way. The Russian Federation is as well. According to a 10 November report by the Turan news agency, some PKK militants who were forced out of Syria have taken refuge in the Caucasus under the protection of the Russian military. Reportedly "about a 100" Kurdish fighters are now housed at Russian military bases in Armenia, and another 20 or so are said to be in Azerbaijan's Lachin district, a region under Armenian occupation. According to the Azeri Geyrat movement press center, some Kurds attempted to go to Georgia but were rebuffed. This latest Kurdish move inevitably calls attention to the links the PKK has had to various Soviet and Russian officials. On 11 November, China's Xinhua news agency reported that former Azerbaijani President Abulfez Elchibey has been charged with libel for suggesting that Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev and Russian Prime Minister Yevgenii Primakov were among those who helped found the PKK in the late 1960s. Two Azerbaijani opposition newspapers, "Azadlyq" and "Yeni Musavat" printed Elchibey's remarks and thus were also subjected to government sanctions. That Soviet officials were involved in the founding of the PKK has long been known; that Aliyev and Primakov were among those officials is a relatively new and as yet unconfirmed idea.