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Will Deighton on what's really behind the latest Gulf crisis

A threat to whom?

For the past seven years Iraq has been subject to a regime imposed by the United Nations Security Council. A UN blockade on Iraqi oil sales - its principal export - has left the country desperately short of money to buy food and medicine, so creating an entirely man-made famine. Much of Iraq's threadbare welfare services are operated by officials of the United Nations Children's Fund. Its industry was wrecked by the Allied bombings in the 1991 Gulf War, in which 250 000 bombs were dropped and up to 180 000 Iraqis were killed. Shortly after the war, a UN team headed by UN under-secretary Martii Ahtisaari reported that 'Iraq has, for some time to come, been relegated to a pre-industrial age'.

The government of president Saddam Hussein does not even have control over Iraqi territory. Allied forces operate a 'no-fly zone' over Northern Iraq, barring any flights by Iraqi aircraft. Allied military personnel have been ensconced in autonomous Kurdish regions. Troops from Turkey, a Nato ally, have invaded northern Iraq on numerous occasions, most recently in February to create a 'buffer zone'. A team of UN 'Weapons Inspectors', mostly former military personnel, demand free access to every Iraqi building in their search for 'weapons of mass destruction'.

That is the real world. In the fantasy world occupied by Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, however, Iraq is the greatest threat on Earth, poised to kill the entire population of the planet before invading Israel, Kuwait and everywhere else. To justify this fantasy, the spin-doctors in Washington and London have magicked up 'evidence' of new kinds of germ warfare, some of which, like the mysterious 'Agent 15', are so new, that nobody has ever heard of them. Look closely, however, and the evidence falls apart. Indeed the target of the proposed military actions against Iraq turns out not to be identi-fiable 'weapons of mass destruction', but the capacity to manufacture weapons of mass destruction. You know: roads, electric power plants, factories, railways.

There are weapons of mass destruction in the Persian Gulf: by mid-February there were two aircraft carriers with 112 tactical aircraft and 46 other planes, two cruisers, five destroyers, two guided missile frigates, two attack submarines, one fast combat support ship and two mine countermeasure ships. And that is just the US Navy. The US airforce has 126 fighter jets, including six F-117 stealth fighters in Kuwait and 30 F-16s in Bahrain, 18 A-10 attack planes, 14 B-52 bombers in Diego Garcia, three Awacs radar planes, four electronic warfare planes, four reconnaissance planes, 11 cargo planes, 30 refuelling planes and four helicopters. The combined US forces in the Gulf number 21 900 (www.cdi.org).

Of course, the USA could assemble this arsenal without prompting investigation by the UN weapons inspectors, because the Allies won the war against Iraq in 1991. If it had been the other way round perhaps Iraqi weapons inspectors would have objected to the $265 billion that Congress dedicated to developing weapons of mass destruction in 1998 - making a total planned spending of $1.6 trillion from now to the year 2002.

Just as the Allies are running the Gulf show, so the current crisis was provoked by the weapons inspectors, not Saddam. Since the Iraqis have given the weapons inspectors access to almost every part of the country they have concentrated their efforts on those areas that they are not allowed into: the presidential palaces.

The very idea that Iraq should have presidential palaces strikes Washington and Whitehall as sinister. The fact that the forcible investigation of these by a team of former US marines and other ex-military personnel should be offensive to Iraqis seems to be sure-fire proof that behind the damask wallpaper are secret stores of anthrax and the sinister nerve gas with the sun-tan oil name, Agent 15. Imagine the scene if a group of Japanese Naval Officers were to demand access to St James' Palace to search for a stock of nerve gas beneath the late Princess Diana's floor.

When Iraq agreed to allow access to the presidential palaces, the US authorities decided that was not good enough after all. Clinton and his weapons inspectors will not be satisfied until they have a video camera installed in the presidential bedchamber to make sure that Saddam is not hiding a weapon of mass destruction between the sheets.

Commentators like retired Gulf War supremo General Norman Schwarzkopf have said that any action against Iraq should have a clear objective. But the US-UK strategy towards Iraq can have no clear and final objective. Each humiliation that Washington heaps upon Saddam - from the no-fly zone, through the sanctions to the UN weapons inspectorate - fails to satisfy the restless compulsion to punish Iraq. Indeed no outcome, up to and including the overthrow of Saddam, could satisfy Clinton. That is because the Gulf policy does not arise out of anything that is happening in Iraq, but out of developments within the Western camp.

For the last seven and a half years, the conflict between Iraq and the Allies has been driven by the need of American presidents and other Western leaders to demonstrate their authority in the world. Saddam Hussein has served as a whipping boy for those who need to demonstrate resolve on the world stage where they lack it in their domestic programmes. A series of military strikes against Iraq have had an unnerving correspondence to American elections. If Saddam did not exist, or if he fell tomorrow, they would have to invent a replacement.

Time and again the real meaning of the conflict slips into the semi-official commentary of the Washington propagandists: the West must not lose face, or be humiliated by Saddam. Stripped of its self-serving sense of hurt this proposition means that Saddam must be humiliated at all costs, and the authority of the Allies in Iraq (and throughout the non-Western world) must be seen to be unchallengeable. To guarantee that authority, it seems that Clinton and Blair are prepared to engage in a bloody human sacrifice.

Reproduced from LM issue 108, March 1998

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