The UN and Iraq look set for yet another confrontation: there is mounting concern in Washington about the growing perils facing American pilots flying over Iraq as Baghdad continues to improve its air defences. Baghdad has expelled eight UN staffers in recent weeks, accusing them of “violating their standard operating procedures” and passing security-related information to “enemy states.”
On August 31, Iraq expelled a Dutch national for taking photographs and then two days later declared five others persona non grata and ordered them out of the country for leaking security information to “enemy states.” The staffers held key positions in the UN “oil-for-food” programme. The expelled UN employees were identified as Denis Nwachukwu, head of an observation unit that inspects goods arriving in Iraq, Abioy Awopatu Lawrence, head of the UN reports section, Nnenna Uchagbu, a legal adviser, Roberts Onebunne, a reports officer, and Ljiljana Miletic, a Bosnian woman working as data analyst in the same unit. The Dutchman works for the Swiss firm Cotecna, which is subcontracted by the UN to inspect authorized goods entering Iraq. The Nigerians left Iraq for Jordan on August 4; the Bosnian woman was not in the country at the time Iraq delivered the expulsion order to the UN in New York.
Two Argentine members of the international force monitoring the Iraq-Kuwait border, known as the United Nations Iraq-Kuwait Observation Mission (UNIKOM), had been expelled on August 22. The UN says that the two peacekeepers, who were transferred to the Kuwaiti side of the border in late August, and the Dutchman were taking pictures, which is forbidden under rules negotiated with Baghdad. Manoel de Almeida e Silva, UN deputy spokesman, told reporters in New York: “Since they had violated standard operating procedures, they were removed from the mission area.” He also revealed that two other UNIKOM members who had left Iraq in April following similar Iraqi complaints did so for similar reasons.
Baghdad has always chafed at the UN “oil-for-food” programme, which it views as infringing its independence. The UN has 364 international and local staff working for the programme in southern and central Iraq. Another 518 staff members are stationed in areas of northern Iraq that are not under the control of Baghdad. The programme, which was instituted in December 1996, is meant to ease the impact of the 11-year-old sanctions regime imposed on Iraq after its invasion of Kuwait (August 1990). But Baghdad says that the programme was delaying the lifting of the embargo. It also questions the credibility of UNIKOM, as the monitoring body does not report flights by US and British reconnaissance and fighter jets in Iraqi airspace as violations. More than 1,000 observers are involved in reporting violations of Iraqi or Kuwaiti territories within the framework of UNIKOM.
The initial Iraqi accusations did not include an explicit charge of spying. Naji Sabri, Iraq’s foreign minister, said on September 5 in an interview with al-Shabab television, owned by Uday, the elder son of Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, that UN employees “must protect the security of information available to them and should not supply such information to another country.” Asked if the UN employees were involved in “spying,” Sabri skirted the question. But in a heated UN Security Council session on September 6, Muhammad al-Douri, Iraqi ambassador to the UN, accused the UN of sending spies to Iraq. Douri is reported to have shouted at Benon Sevan, the UN official in charge of the “oil-for-food” programme, during the session: “Why are you sending me spies?” Speaking to reporters after the session, Douri said that the expelled UN officials “were spying, and we hope to prove that soon,” adding that “the United States, maybe, is behind those people.”
For his part, Sevan has denied the spying charges, arguing in a letter to Douri that Baghdad has failed to “provide any detail or supporting evidence to charges levelled against the five staff members.” But he said that the officials were withdrawn for “safety reasons.” He also accused Iraq of violating international treaties on UN staff abroad by expelling UN employees unilaterally without specific charges, contending that the treaties state that such charges need to be documented to the UN secretary-general.
In fact, the spiralling escalation at the diplomatic front goes in tandem with an increase in US and British air strikes on Iraq. The Bush administration’s effort to revitalize America’s hi-tech bombing of Iraq reflects its growing concern over Baghdad’s successful efforts to overhaul its air defences. The recent marked intensification in the aerial bombardment came after an unmanned US Air Force RQ-1B Predator reconnaissance aircraft was shot down by Iraqi air defences on August 27 near the southern city of Basra, some 340 miles south of Baghdad and 30 miles north of the Kuwaiti border. Al-Jumhuriyyah daily (Tuesday, August 28, 2001) called it “a slap on America’s ugly face” and “a surprise for its arrogant administration”.
The relatively slow and low-flying unmanned drones, which transmit television pictures and other information back to bases via satellites, are used to supplement US and British aircraft patrols in the “no-fly zones” over northern and southern Iraq. The air exclusion zones were carved out in April 1991 and August 1992 respectively with the ostensible goal of providing protection to Kurdish and Shi’ite dissidents from government forces. The zones are not authorized by any UN resolution, so they contravene international law.
Shooting down the spy drone is Iraq’s first success against a US or British aircraft since the air patrols began in 1991. It comes after Iraq’s successful efforts to improve its air defences and command and control facilities. It brings Iraq one step closer to attaining its declared goal of shooting down a manned warplane, giving Baghdad, which has spoken openly of putting captured American and British pilots on trial as “war criminals,” the ability to use captured pilots as levers in its confrontation with Washington. Baghdad is apparently hoping that a few captured American pilots will force the US to abandon its supposedly anti-Saddam campaign.
The recent air-strikes are part of a continued effort to counteract the improvements in Iraqi air defences. On August 30, US F-16 warplanes attacked and destroyed a radar facility at Basra International Airport. A brief announcement by the US military’s Central Command, based in Tampa, Florida, which controls operations in the Persian Gulf region, said that the warplanes attacked “a military radar” in southern Iraq. Since then, US and British warplanes have staged a series of other raids on targets in northern and southern Iraq.
These attacks reflect a growing tendency toward launching strikes that are planned in advance. Most previous attacks were inspired by rules of engagement giving US and British pilots freedom to use ordnance against targets of their choosing whenever the Iraqis used radar to track them or upon encountering anti-aircraft artillery or surface-to-air missiles. But as events have shown over the years, such low-grade attacks have not prevented Iraq from improving its anti-aircraft defence network. Iraq has been able to upgrade its air defences and radar installations faster than US and British pilots can take them out. The biggest improvement is said to have come from the addition of fibre-optic cables, buried underground to protect them from air strikes, connecting elements of its air defences. This technological leap affords Iraq the ability to process larger volumes of data and to protect communication between its command and control centres from eavesdropping by American spy satellites and electronic warfare planes.
This leaves Washington with the option of launching a large-scale attack. But the Bush administration is constrained by the probable political backlash from other Arab countries at a time when anti-Americanism in the region has increased because of Washington’s pro-Israel bias on the intifada. This constraint has forced the Bush administration, which has been struggling to fashion a new and tougher policy on Iraq, to perpetuate the futile policy that it has inherited from the previous administration.
This constraint on the Bush administration is one of the positive political outcomes of the second intifada. This is another instance of stalemate, rather than total victory, becoming the only possible outcome for the only ‘superpower’ in the unipolar post-cold war era.