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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 37, May 1999

Profound Diplomatic Deadlock over Iraq as US-UK Air Attacks Continue

Diplomatic efforts to revive cooperative relations between Iraq and the United Nations, following the December air attacks against Iraqi targets by US and UK forces, remain mired in division and rancour, with little sign of a breakthrough that would be acceptable to Iraq, heal the deep rifts in the Security Council, and allow for the return of UN weapons inspectors or monitors. The Council, not even scheduled to discuss the matter until 21 May (see next issue), has at its disposal three reports on different aspects of the crisis - disarmament issues, humanitarian issues, Iraq-Kuwait issues (see Disarmament Diplomacy No. 36) - but is struggling to bridge the gulf between the preference of China, France and Russia that the oil embargo be lifted once adequate monitoring of Iraqi weapons-of-mass-destruction (WMD) related facilities is in place, and the preference of the US and UK that sanctions remain in place until any new monitoring system is able to certify that Iraq has no ongoing WMD-programmes nor any WMD stocks or equipment.

For its part, Iraq is simply insisting on an immediate and unconditional lifting of all sanctions. The US and UK are prepared to talk about reforms to the 'oil-for-food' programme under which Iraq is permitted to sell oil to raise funds to alleviate its chronic humanitarian crisis. The US acknowledges that Iraq needs help, possibly including foreign investment, to enable its oil-producing infrastructure to meet the requirements of the oil-for-food programme, and is also said to be contemplating lifting the upper limit on the amount of oil to be produced. Again, however, Iraq is vehemently opposed to the programme in any form, seeing it principally as a means of allowing for the continuation of the sanctions regime. The programme is renewed by the Security Council every 180-days, with the expiration of the current period falling on 24 May. Reports spoke of no expectation that anything other than a routine renewal of the existing programme would be agreed.

On 12 May, Iraq's Foreign Minister, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf, submitted a 12-page letter on the oil-for-food programme, and the UN-coordinated humanitarian relief effort associated with it, to Secretary-General Annan. The Foreign Minister called on Annan "to shoulder" his "responsibility by frankly announcing that the programme has never, and will never, achieve the lifting of the great suffering of the Iraqi people. ... The only logical solution is the lifting of the blockade without additional conditions." There are many reports, including UN estimates, that Iraq is deliberating failing to distribute large amounts of humanitarian supplies, presumably to discredit the entire scheme.

As diplomatic efforts limp on, attacks by American and British fighter aircraft in the 'no-fly zones' in the north and south of Iraq are continuing, placing considerable further strain on the search for a political solution. The US and UK insist the attacks are only carried out in retaliation for Iraqi anti-aircraft fire, but the bombing - which resumed on 17 April after a lull of nearly four weeks coinciding with the outbreak of the Kosovo conflict - is periodically claiming civilian lives. On 12 May, according to Iraq, attacks on the city of Mosul, 250 miles north of Baghdad, left 12 people dead. The incident was strongly condemned by the Russian Foreign Ministry on 14 May:

"The list of victims among peaceful citizens is growing, and we witness the systematic destruction of Iraq's economic potential and infrastructure. ... [Russia is] shocked by the shamelessness and arrogance with which basic norms of international law and morality continue to be trampled on [by the US and UK]..."

On 3 May, Hams von Sponeck, the coordinator of the UN's humanitarian relief effort in Iraq, toured the town of Bashiqa, north of Mosul, also hit by recent airstrikes. Von Sponeck told reporters: "I was deeply affected by what I saw - the total destruction of a shepherd's family and all their possessions. ... I am extremely sensitive to the effect of increasing airstrikes on the implementation of the humanitarian programmes in Iraq. ... [The UN cannot] take lightly events like these, which affect human life."

Reports: US planes strike Iraqi targets, Associated Press, 17 April; Strikes on Iraq may hamper aid, Associated Press, 3 May; UN Council still far apart on Iraq, Associated Press, 11 May; UN diplomats see no changes for Iraq oil sales, Reuters, 11 May; Iraq says 12 dead in US attack in north, Reuters, 12 May; Iraq assesses humanitarian program, Associated Press, 13 May; US may allow more oil sales, investment in Iraq, Reuters, 13 May; UN plan to allow oil investment in Iraq gains pace, Reuters, 14 May; Russia criticizes attack on Iraq, Associated Press, 14 May.

© 1999 The Acronym Institute.

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