America sounding drums of war against Iraq

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War fever against Iraq has been growing in Washington and reached a peak that has not been seen since the Gulf War. The recent sabre-rattling issuing from America has led observers to speculate not about whether America will act against Iraq but when and how it will. The ultra-right-wing hawks in the government of president George W Bush have been not only threatening fire and brimstone but also leaking elaborate blueprints for a possible assault on Iraq.

Hints of an impending attack can be found everywhere. On July 8, Bush reiterated the threat of an invasion at a press conference, saying: “It is the stated policy of this government to have a regime change in Baghdad,” and vowing to “use all the tools at our disposal to do so.” Preparations indicate that Washington is readying its “tools” of war. The Pentagon has placed record orders for munitions, prompting US weapons-makers to double their production of laser-guided bombs, add new shifts of workers on assembly-lines for satellite-guided-bomb tailkits, and raise production at one ammunition-factory to its highest level in 15 years. Such weapons would play a key role in any attack on Iraq. This increase in production has led some analysts to speak of a “quantum leap in air-power lethality”.

There are also reports of special drills begun by the US First Marine Expeditionary Force at Camp Pendleton, California, in preparation for battle in deserts and mountains of Iraq. Washington has been reinforcing a string of military bases and airfields throughout the Persian Gulf region. Work is under way at al-‘Udhaydh air base in Qatar, where thousands of American airmen operate F-16 fighter jets, JSTAR reconnaissance aircraft and KC-10 and KC-135 aerial refueling tankers, to fit the facility out as the main regional command-and-control centre for US air operations, to replace Prince Sultan air base in Saudi Arabia. American and British intelligence operatives have reportedly stepped up their activities in Kurdish-dominated northern Iraq, gathering information on Iraqi minefields, as well as troop-movements and positions.

In a speech on July 17, marking the anniversary of the 1968 coup that inaugurated the Ba’ath party’s rule in Iraq, Saddam Hussein spoke defiantly, returning Bush’s “axis of evil” rhetoric in kind. He vowed that Iraq would never be defeated by “evil tyrants and oppressors of the world” even if they seek the assistance of “all the devils.” He beseeched God to protect Iraq “from the schemes of the Devil or of those to whom the Devil is master.” Saddam’s eldest son, ‘Uday, warned of a meltdown in the Middle East if an attack is made.

The leaks and speculations have been so many that several possible scenarios can be discerned. One views the war rhetoric against Iraq as designed to destabilize Saddam’s regime: leaks are part of a strategy of manipulation, intended to prompt Iraqi army officers to rebel to save their country from America’s war machine. Alternatively, Saddam could be scared into readmitting UN weapons-inspectors. But these “positive” scenarios are still dangerous: politicians could become the prisoners of their own rhetoric, finding themselves having to resort to war to avoid being perceived as full of hot air. However, given the US’s fixation on Iraq, there is good reason not to dismiss the recent threats as bluff.

The early leaks detailed a grand plan for a three-pronged “Afghan-style” ground invasion involving some 250,000 troops in three battle formations, using bases in Turkey, Jordan and a Gulf state, possibly Kuwait, as launching pads to move on the northern, western and southern parts of Iraq respectively. Reports have talked of at least 2,000 US Special Operations and other troops that have been sent covertly to Jordan. But Amman denied this, and on July 15 even allowed journalists to tour the Muwaffaq al-Salti air force base near the Iraqi border to disprove reports that it was being refurbished to house US troops. However, Kuwait houses the forward headquarters of the US Army’s Central Command at Camp Doha, an American base only 35 miles (55 kilometres) from the Iraqi border. A force of some 2,000 US troops, equipped with Abrams tanks, Bradley armoured personnel-carriers and Patriot missile- and air-defence systems is stationed there.

The invading troops will be backed by a massive aerial bombardment carried out by hundreds of aircraft. The aerial campaign will knock out Iraq’s command-and-control facilities, thus undermining the Iraqi army’s ability to carry out concerted operations. The ultimate hope is that the Iraqi army will disintegrate.

Iraqi opposition groups and figures have been increasingly adamant that the Iraqi forces, including the much-feared 100,000-strong Republican Guards, lack the will to fight to protect Saddam’s regime. They argue that when the aerial bombardment starts the armed forces, even officers close to Saddam, will defect and rebel. These assertions tie in with another scenario: that a series of airstrikes and limited Special Forces’ operations, reinforced by follow-up forces, will join up with local rebels and army defectors to help them to depose the dictator.

Interestingly, the leaks have largely shied away from projecting casualty figures. It is feasible that the invasion might result in house-to-house fighting in Iraqi cities, leaving thousands dead. A bloody cycle of settling scores is also possible. Major-General Sa’ad al-‘Ubaydi, who was in charge of Iraq’s psychological warfare before defecting in 1986, said in a recent conference of Iraqi military defectors in London: “Given Iraq’s forty-year history of repression, it is highly likely that blood will fill the streets.” Then there is the possibility of Iraqis turning against the Americans, with the support of regional powers.

As for the timing of the invasion, it is quite possible that it will be launched next spring, when the cool weather is suitable for desert warfare. This would afford the US time for thorough preparations, and also give the Israelis time to crush the intifada, in hope of reducing the intensity of anti-Americanism sweeping the Arab world.

Another possible date is early next autumn, before the mid-term Congressional elections in November. Again the weather conditions will be convenient for desert warfare. More importantly, this timing would allow the Republican Party to ride a wave of war-engendered patriotism. A war will also enable the Bush administration to deflect attention from the corporate scandals that have rocked the US recently, shaking Americans’ confidence in the ability of Bush and his team to manage the economy, and in the integrity of key figures.

So far America has no direct cause for war against Iraq. There is no credible evidence to support the alleged threat of Iraq’s arsenal of “weapons of mass destruction.” Many remain unconvinced by the US government’s assertions about this. Scott Ritter, a former US Marine who headed the UN weapons-inspections in Iraq until 1998, insists that Iraq’s arsenal of weapons of mass destruction had effectively been dismantled.

European leaders (except British prime minister Tony Blair) have said clearly that any attack on Iraq must be preceded by convincing evidence of threatening weapons programmes and a fresh UN resolution. Russia and China have repeatedly said that they will not support a Security Council resolution to go to war against Iraq.

Middle Eastern countries, even those proposed as possible launching pads, are opposed to an American adventure in Iraq. Turkey has been reluctant to take part in any action against Iraq, fearing that the Kurds in northern Iraq might use the war to get their own state, and rekindle the hopes of Turkey’s Kurds to do likewise. Turkish officials have expressed their opposition to an assault on Iraq. During his visit to Ankara earlier this month, US deputy secretary of defence Paul Wolfowitz tried to allay such fears by declaring Washington’s opposition to the establishment of an independent Kurdistan in northern Iraq.

On July 17 Jordan’s king Abdallah II and the crown prince of the UAE “reaffirmed their opposition to any military strike against Iraq since this is not only dangerous for Iraq but also for the security and stability of the region.”

Kuwait’s defence minister told the Kuwaiti daily al-Ra’iy al-‘Aam that his country would only accept a US attack on Iraq if it were carried out under the UN. “Kuwait does not support threats to hit Iraq or to launch an attack against it,” Shaykh Jaber said.

Even if Washington succeeds in deposing Saddam, an advantageous regional order might still elude America. What might happen next is shrouded in uncertainty. The shape of a post-Saddam Iraq will not necessarily be that of freedom and human dignity. The economic consequences of an attack on Iraq could be the price of oil rocketing to $40 a barrel. That does not augur well for international, and especially American, markets.

But this does not seem to weigh heavily on the minds of the hawks in Washington. They seem to have their minds set on finding a pretext for war. Whether this will take the form of a breakdown of talks between Baghdad and the UN on weapons-inspectors, or a convenient incident involving American and British warplanes, or a renewed Iraqi drive to acquire weapons of mass-destruction, remains to be seen. Indeed, such is the US’s arrogance that it may not even bother to offer its allies credible evidence.

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