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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 35, March 1999

US-UK Air Attacks Against Iraq Continue as UN Reviews Policy

The period under review saw no major diplomatic developments in international efforts to resurrect cooperative Iraq-UN relations in the wake of the December US-UK bombardment. As reported in the last issue, on 30 January the Security Council announced the establishment of three panels, all under the chairship of Brazil's UN Ambassador Celso Amorim, to report back to the Council by 15 April on three of the key dimensions of the crisis: disarmament; humanitarian issues; and matters outstanding from Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. Iraq has rejected the setting up of the panels as prevarication designed to mask deep divisions within the Council, and is demanding instead the immediate and unconditional lifting of sanctions.

The disarmament panel held its first meeting on 23 February. According to Amorim: "I'm very hopeful...that the panel will be able to have a fresh look at this dossier and enable the Security Council to take...policy decisions."

What those decisions might be is hard to predict. Reports suggest that Russia and France are no longer committed to the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) returning to Iraq to complete its inspection and assessment of all facilities, materials and documentation relating to Iraq's past weapons-of-mass-destruction (WMD) programme. The new priority, according to these reports, would be only for a monitoring of Iraq's current facilities to seek to ensure Iraq does not attempt to restart those programmes. However, speaking in Melbourne on 19 February, UNSCOM Chair Richard Butler of Australia - due to stand down from his post in June, and fiercely criticised by Russia and other States for his leadership of the Commission - spoke of the difficulties involved even in this scaled-down version of UNSCOM's work: "If that's the Council's decision, we can do it. But we warned that under that set of circumstances, the monitoring would have to be very heavyweight, very intrusive and continue to have elements that are not different from what we were doing under the disarmament system - which is no-notice inspections at places of our choice, at our time, and so on."

Iraq repeated its opposition to the panel process on 27 February. According to Oil Minister Mohammed Rashid: "Our position is very clear. We will not deal with any decision where Iraq was not consulted... These panels [therefore] we will not deal with. They do not concern us." Rashid went on to announce that Iraq had submitted documents to the Security Council setting out its view of the way ahead.

Throughout the four weeks reviewed here, almost daily air attacks by America and Britain in response to Iraqi violations of the 'no-fly zones' in the north and south of the country continued, sometimes causing civilian casualties and other unintended damage. On 28 February, US warplanes hit the Iraqi-Turkish oil pipeline. Although the attacks are claimed as retaliatory, many see them as a continuation of the objective of the December bombardment to degrade Iraqi military, particularly air-defence, capabilities, and even as part of America's avowed intention of helping to destabilise the Hussein regime.

On 3 March, President Clinton gave details of the ongoing action. In a letter to Congress, Clinton stated that since 23 December, "[w]e have seen a significant increase in the frequency, intensity and coordination of the Iraqi air defense system to counter enforcement of the no-fly zones... Since that date, US and coalition aircraft have been subject to multiple anti-aircraft firings, radar illuminations and over 20 surface-to-air missile attacks. ... On over 50 occasions since December, US and coalition forces have engaged the Iraqi integrated air defense system. As a consequence, the Iraqi air defense system has been degraded substantially further since December."

The frequency of the ongoing attacks has led to some criticism from States otherwise supportive of the US stance. Speaking at a press conference alongside US Defense Secretary William Cohen on 9 March, the Foreign Minister of Qatar, Sheik Hamad bin Jassim Al-Thani, stated: "We do not wish to see Iraq being bombed daily... We understand the position of the United States...[but] I cannot say we support the daily [attacks] in the no-fly zone." Asked about the Minister's remarks, Cohen - concluding a visit to Gulf Arab States - noted (10 March): "There have been no expressions of dissent or question about our need to protect our pilots... [T]he Foreign Minister of Qatar did not think that daily attacks were, in his judgment, necessary..."

A further backdrop to the diplomatic lull has been numerous reports detailing the alleged misuse of the United Nations Special Commission on Iraq (UNSCOM) for espionage purposes.

Addressing the Council on Foreign Relations in New York on 3 March, Richard Butler pleaded to the Council not to abandon the UNSCOM project because of the spying claims, even if they were true. According to Butler, there is a "very difficult situation in the Security Council because it is the one thing it shouldn't be - divided. The only beneficiary of a divided Security Council is a recalcitrant Iraq. ... You don't throw out the whole regime we have developed for one flaw... We have led the world in the practical, hands-on techniques for getting this job done and it has had brilliant results. The fact this stuff may have happened...shouldn't lead to the throwing away of what we have done."

Butler conceded, however, that the charges were serious: "If people think they're entering into serious arms control verification regimes and find that someone's sneaking in through the back, them we're in serious trouble... Did someone piggyback on us for their own purposes? I don't know."

Reports: UNSCOM chief Butler fears Iraq will face down UN, Reuters, 19 February; Panel examines Iraqi disarmament, Associated Press, 23 February; US jets hit air defenses in northern Iraq - Pentagon, Reuters, 23 February; Book says US spied on UN inspectors, Associated Press, 23 February; Military chief says US did not bomb near Baghdad, Reuters, 25 February; Iraqis dismiss UN disarmament panel, Associated Press, 28 February; Iraq submits disarmament documents to United Nations, Reuters, 28 February; Iraq says US attack in North cuts off oil export, Reuters, 28 February; United States casts doubt on Iraqi charge on pipeline hit, Reuters, 1 March; Delays keep supplies from Iraqi civilians, UN reports, United States Information Service, 1 March; US spied on Iraqi military via UN, Washington Post, 2 March; US widens list as it blasts Iraqi military, Reuters, 2 March; Clinton - strikes hurt Iraq defenses, Associated Press, 3 March; Chief UN arms inspector sees trouble in spy charge, Washington Post, 4 March; UN's Butler says did not approve US spying in Iraq, Reuters, 4 March; US 'very sensitive' to oil flow from Iraq - Cohen, Reuters, 5 March; UNSCOM chief - Security Council unity on Iraqi weapons essential, United States Information Service, 8 March; Cohen offers US missile monitoring to Gulf, Reuters, 8 March; Qatar leader criticizes US on Iraq, Associated Press, 9 March; Cohen says Gulf States support policy against Iraq, Reuters, 10 March.

© 1999 The Acronym Institute.

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