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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 53, December 2000 - January 2001

Tension and Policy Drift as UN Prepares to Talk to Iraq

As the tenth anniversary of the Gulf War approached (see next issue for comment), tension between Washington and Baghdad remained intense, with rhetoric and warnings filling the vacuum in international policy created by the demise of the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) two years ago. Despite, or because of, the disheartening context - deep divisions between the permanent members of the UN Security Council, the sanctions regime in growing disarray, and an incoming US administration at least as committed as that of President Clinton to destroying the Saddam Hussein regime - the UN leadership is working hard to engineer an urgent political rapprochement with Iraq.

Talks in New York between a high-level Iraqi delegation and UN officials led by Secretary-General Kofi Annan, originally scheduled for January, are expected to take place in February - see next issue for coverage and reaction. Iraq has been making clear, however, that a comprehensive resolution of outstanding issues - principally, the lifting of the embargo - would be required before it would allow UNSCOM's successor, the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC), to begin work. In the words of the government-run Al-Thawra newspaper on January 4: "Iraq will not go to the UN to listen to instructions or be reminded of resolutions it knows well. Iraq is going to find a way out of a crisis endangering the security of the region and threatening an explosion [at] any time..."

Pending any political breakthrough, attention focuses on symptoms of the impasse: the oil-for-food programme designed to relieve humanitarian suffering caused by the sanctions; the weakening of the sanctions; and the ongoing military action by US and UK air forces in the 'no-fly zones' bitterly criticised by many states including Russia and China. On January 9, Moscow issued its latest condemnation of the zones:

"The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has repeatedly noted the unlawfulness of the American and British air forces' bombing raids against Iraqi territory in the so-called no-fly zones that were set up in contravention of UN Security Council resolutions. According to Iraqi data, military aircraft of the above-mentioned states invaded Iraqi air space 11,065 times in 2000, including 8,199 times from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and 2,866 times from Turkey. ... On 68 occasions, civilian buildings were attacked, which caused 30 deaths among peaceful citizens, and 134 persons were wounded. Damage was done to residential houses, schools, farms, roads and farmland. The Russian side calls for an end to such unlawful actions toward Iraq and for respect to that country's sovereignty... In so doing, we proceed from the fact that continued unlawful bombings not only increases the number of innocent victims...but also substantially complicates the process of political settlement of the Iraqi problem." Rumours in early January that Britain was contemplating a halt to its participation in the bombing raids were denied by government officials.

On December 5, the Security Council unanimously adopted resolution 1330 (2000), jointly submitted by France and Britain, extending the oil-for-food programme for a further 180-day period. Addressing concerns that too much of the revenue generated - 30% - was being transferred to the Compensation Fund established to assist victims of Iraqi aggression, the resolution ordered a 5% reduction in the deduction rate, instructing the Secretary-General to use the additional funds "for strictly humanitarian projects to address the needs of the most vulnerable groups in Iraq". In addition, the Council expressed its "intention to establish a mechanism to review, before the end of the 180-day period, the effective deduction rate of the funds deposited in the escrow account to be transferred to the Compensation Fund in future phases, taking into account the key elements of the humanitarian needs of the Iraqi people."

Iraq expressed unhappiness about the resolution, characterising it as avoidance of the central issues, and did not formally accept the new terms until December 11. The acceptance meant that Iraqi oil exports, suspended by Baghdad on December 1 following a dispute over pricing, could resume. Iraq had been seeking to impose a surcharge on oil bought under the UN programme, generating direct funds for its disposal and bypassing the escrow account. On December 9, Iraq's Revolutionary Command Council announced it was requesting the transfer of one billion Euros, provided to it under the oil-for-food arrangements, to Palestinian families bereaved in the uprising in the occupied territories. On December 13, US State Department Acting Spokesperson Charles Hunter expressed concern that Iraq, having failed to force a change of UN policy over its requests for a surcharge and diversion, would attempt to achieve its objectives clandestinely: "The United States is aware of media reports that the Iraqi government is attempting to force its oil customers to violate UN Security Council resolutions by demanding that they secretly pay a premium into an Iraqi controlled account. The US government is concerned about these reports and is looking into them very closely."

On January 13, a plane chartered by US activists opposing sanctions and loaded with humanitarian supplies arrived in Baghdad, one of many such flights - from France, Russia, Jordan and elsewhere - in recent months. One of the passengers was former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark, who told reporters: "The sanctions have been criminal. They have been a crime against humanity for a decade... What I hope is [that] the rest of the nations of the world refuse to participate in a criminal conspiracy against the people of Iraq..." On January 4, French President Jacques Chirac observed: that maintaining sanctions "for the tenth year running, and thus badly hurting innocent people already enduring great suffering, poses a political as well as a moral problem."

However, on December 16, Secretary of State-designate Colin Powell called for an urgent consolidation of the embargo, arguing that Iraq had "not yet fulfilled" its obligations under UN resolutions and that "my judgment is that sanctions in some form must be kept in place until they do so... We will work with our allies to re-energize the sanctions regime." Powell added: "We are in the strong position. He [Saddam Hussein] is in the weak position. And I think it's possible to re-energize those sanctions and continue to contain him and then confront him if necessary." The same day, Iraq's Deputy Prime Minister, Tariq Aziz, said he expected no change of policy from the Bush administration: "Whether the President is Republican or Democrat, we are not concerned. We do not expect it to change anything... America is an establishment. Money brings it to power, and when this fact is at the centre of American policy...we do not expect a change..."

Speaking to reporters on January 9, Secretary of State Albright gave her assessment of the condition and possible evolution of US policy toward Iraq: "I am really sorry that we had the issue of Iraq on our plate when we arrived, and I am equally sorry to say that we are passing it on. But I do think that Saddam Hussein is weaker. He has been contained. We have worked very hard not to have him be a threat to the region, to do everything that we can to make sure he doesn't reconstitute his weapons of mass destruction... It has not been easy... I think that this has been the longest-running [UN] sanctions regime. ... When Secretary-designate Powell and I spoke about this, he said that he wanted to strengthen the sanctions, and I wish him a lot of luck in that. It is the right thing to do but it's very difficult, and I think ultimately the Iraqi people will have to deal with the problem of Saddam Hussein with much help and support from the civilized world."

Reports: UN, Iraq to talk after Ramadan, Associated Press, November 28; Iraq halts oil exports, demands surcharge, Washington Post, December 2; Security Council extends Iraq 'oil-for-food' programme for further 180-day period beginning 6 December, UN Press Release SC/6969, December 5; Security Council renews Iraqi oil-for-food program, US State Department (Washington File), December 6; Iraq earmarks oil cash for Palestinians, BBC News Online, December 9; Iraq criticizes UN over oil deal renewal, Reuters, December 9; Iraq Oks UN deal extension - exports to resume, Reuters, December 11; Iraq oil stays on hold, Baghdad wants surcharge, Reuters, December 11; Text - State Dept on reported illegal Iraqi oil sales, US State Department (Washington File), December 13; Iraq admits sanctions costly, Associated Press, December 16; Powell calls for 're-energized' Iraq sanctions, Reuters, December 16; Transcript - President-elect Bush, Colin Powell press conference, US State Department (Washington File), December 16; Six Gulf nations sign defense pact, Associated Press, December 31; Iraq sanctions pose 'moral problem', says Chirac, Reuters, January 4; Iraq expects UN dialogue soon, Associated Press, January 4; Russian Foreign Ministry Statement, Document 19-09-01-2001, January 9; UK denies Iraq U-turn, BBC News Online, January 9; Excerpts - Albright on Mideast peace, Iraq, US State Department (Washington File), January 9; First US flight to defy sanctions lands in Iraq, Reuters, January 13.

© 2001 The Acronym Institute.