West bombing Iraq again as Bush maintains tough approach

It’s déja vu yet again in the Persian Gulf, with US and British air raids against Iraq throughout most of August. Since August 7, after a three-week break in their bombing, US and British warplanes have returned to pound targets in northern and southern Iraq at the previous rate of three or four raids a week. The resumption of bombing is part of an escalation in the confrontation between a more assertive Iraq and an increasingly isolated US. Yet as signs of the failure of US president Bush’s tougher policy on Iraq continue to emerge, so do not only signs of increased Iraqi defiance but also growing resistance in the region to the US’s imperial muscle-flexing.

According to the Pentagon, the campaign targets Iraqi surface-to-air missile sites and associated radar and communications systems and is a response to recent anti-aircraft artillery and surface-to-air missile fire at warplanes ‘patrolling’ the ‘no-fly’ zones over Iraq. However, Iraq says that the raids usually target civilian installations.

US and British warplanes have been patrolling ‘no-fly’ zones in northern and southern Iraq since April 1991 and August 1992 respectively, ostensibly to protect dissident Kurds in the north and Shi’ites in the south against attacks by Iraqi government forces. US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld defended the continued enforcement of the ‘no-fly’ zones over Iraq during a press conference on August 17 in Washington: “Coalition aircraft make those flights for the purpose of keeping track of what Saddam Hussein may or may not be doing with respect to his forces and his prior activities of attempting to do damage to the Shi’ah in the south or to the Kurds in the north or to Kuwait,” he said. But the zones are not specifically authorized by any United Nations resolution, and thus contravene international law.

On August 17 an Iraqi military spokesman said that his country’s air defences might have hit a US warplane flying over northern Iraq. “Evidence points to the probability that one of the hostile aircraft coming from Turkey was hit,” the spokesman said, according to the Iraqi News Agency (INA). There was no independent confirmation of the Iraqi claim. Iraq has made a number of similar non-confirmed claims since it started challenging the coalition flights some two years ago, but no aircraft is confirmed to have been lost.

Baghdad has recently been reinforcing its anti-aircraft defences and efforts to target US reconnaissance aircraft. Iraq has also reiterated its determination to continue to challenge US-British flights over its territory. A front-page editorial in al-Thawrah daily (August 17, 2001), the Ba’ath party’s mouthpiece, warned that “Iraq will oppose the air exclusion zones and improve its anti-aircraft defences to demolish the enemy planes.” The paper, which criticised Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait for playing host to airbases for US and British warplanes patrolling the zones, also said that Baghdad will prosecute any captured US or British pilots as “war criminals,” adding that “this is a right guaranteed by international law because Iraq is defending itself.”

The renewal of the bombing campaign against Iraq (which began with a four-day blitz in December 1998 to punish Iraq for expelling UN weapons inspectors after it was found that some of them were CIA agents), signals Washington’s return to its war of attrition against Iraq. According to Baghdad, US and British warplanes based in Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have flown tens of thousands of sorties since 1998, resulting in the deaths of more than 350 people and injuries to some 1,000 others. These figures have been partially confirmed by UN sources.

But the Bush administration’s resort to limited pinprick air strikes against Iraq, instead of a large-scale offensive, indicates Washington’s desire to avoid the potentially serious repercussions of an escalation with Iraq when anti-American feeling has soared because of Washington’s pro-Israel bias on the intifada. In addition, Bush’s decision to continue a tradition of using air power to enforce a failed foreign policy also indicates Washington’s continued inability to move beyond unilateral militarism in dealing with Baghdad.

The resumption of the air strikes coincided with a number of developments highlighting the extent to which the regime of Saddam Hussein has strengthened its position in the region. Most notable was the visit to Baghdad of Syrian prime minister Muhammad Mustafa Miro, the first by a premier from Damascus since ties were severed between the two countries some two decades ago. Miro, accompanied by a delegation of businessmen, held high-level talks in Iraq and reportedly delivered a letter from Syrian president Bashar al-Asad to his Iraqi counterpart, stressing “the support of the Syrian people for Iraq and its solidarity with the fight to lift the unjust embargo.”

Miro’s visit is the latest in a series of moves since 1997 by Baghdad and Damascus to normalise relations. This process is of high political symbolism as Syria and Iraq, governed by rival branches of the Ba’ath party, were locked in bitter hostility for decades. Syria backed Iran in its war with Iraq (1980-88) and took part in the US-led coalition that drove Iraqi troops from Kuwait in 1991.

Iraq has signed a trade-preference agreement with Syria that came into effect in April. Both have cancelled visa requirements for each other’s nationals and set up trade offices in each other’s capitals. Syria reopened its diplomatic mission in Baghdad in May; Iraq had earlier opened an interest section in Damascus. The Syrian state airline has recently started several weekly flights to Baghdad. Moreover, Iraqi vice-president Taha Yassin Ramadan announced during Miro’s visit to Baghdad that Syria will build an oil pipeline stretching from the Iraqi border to the Mediterranean through Syria. Ramadan and Miro signed several cooperation agreements in various areas, including trade, economy, education and transportation.

America soon demonstrated its displeasure at the improvement in relations between Iraq and Syria. On August 15 an American F-16 warplane strayed “accidentally” into Syrian airspace. Major Scott Vandais, spokesman for the Allied patrols over northern Iraq, said that the warplane flew over Syria for 23 minutes before entering Iraqi airspace 8 kilometres below the 36th parallel, and then turned north towards the ‘no-fly’ zone. But a high-ranking Syrian official cast doubt on the probity of the Pentagon’s claim. The anonymous source, quoted by the Jordanian daily al-‘Arab al-Yawm (August 19, 2001), said that 23 minutes are more time than what the command and control systems at the Incirlik US airbase in Turkey need to ascertain the location of the warplane and alert the pilot. The source asserted that the American violation of Syrian airspace was deliberate, adding that Washington might have sought by this act to “send an indirect warning message to Damascus to halt its rapprochement with Baghdad.”

But nowhere is America’s inability to repair its tattered coalition against Iraq more evident than in a recent exchange of statements expressing readiness for reconciliation between Iraq and its Gulf Arab neighbours. In an interview with the Saudi-owned Arabic daily ash-Sharq al-Awsat (August 9, 2001), Saudi deputy prime minister prince Sultan bin ‘Abd al-‘Aziz expressed his country’s readiness for reconciliation with Iraq: “Saudi Arabia bears no grudges against Iraq and has no objection to seeing it return to the Arab fold.” He called on Baghdad to show “good intentions” and respect Kuwait’s sovereignty as a prerequisite for a new chapter in Iraq’s ties with Gulf countries. Sultan also denied that US and British warplanes had bombed Iraq from bases in Saudi Arabia. “The aircraft which take off from Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region have the exclusive job of conducting reconnaissance flights and are prohibited from carrying out any military operations,” he said.

Sultan’s overture was reciprocated by Naji Sabri, Iraq’s foreign minister, who told the Iraqi al-Zawra’ weekly (August 16, 2001): “Iraq in principle wants to broaden relations with all Gulf countries, including Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.” Sabri said that in order for Iraq to renew relations with Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, the two Gulf countries need to block access for US and British forces to bases and “give up welcoming and financing gangs of mercenaries looking to interfere in the internal affairs of Iraq.”

What Iraq’s increasing assertiveness, and the concomitant regional resistance to Washington’s diktats on Iraq, expose is Bush’s failure to America’s strategy on Iraq. As a result the Bush team might turn to another attempt to overhaul the sanctions, described by US secretary of state Colin Powell as “on the way to crashing” and “falling apart.” The issue is expected to come to the fore in November, when the next phase of Iraq’s oil-for-food programme is due to be set by the UN Security Council. The US and Britain will most probably try to force through the same “smart sanctions” draft text as was vetoed by Russia in June. Their problem remains how to avoid Russia’s veto. That is unlikely to happen, given the widening rift between Russia and the US on many international issues, including Iraq.

The current sanctions regime is likely to continue to inflict considerable damage on Iraqi society, giving Saddam’s regime an excuse to cover its own shortcomings, allowing it to score propaganda points internationally, and facilitating its control over the population, partly by its control over food rationing and over smuggling operations. America and Iraq are poised to enter a second decade of stalemate, while ordinary Iraqis continue to pay the price.