You've got to hand it to Saddam. In one brisk, neat letter to Kofi Annan, he pulled the rug from right under George Bush's feet. There was the American president last week, playing the role of multilateralist, warning the world that Iraq had one last chance - through the UN - to avoid Armageddon. "If the Iraqi regime wishes peace," he told us all in the General Assembly, "it will immediately and unconditionally forswear, disclose and remove or destroy all weapons of mass destruction, long-range missiles and all related material." And that, of course, is the point. Saddam would do everything he could to avoid war. President Bush was doing everything he could to avoid peace. And now the Iraqi regime has put the Americans into a corner. The arms inspectors are welcome back in Iraq. No conditions. Just as the Americans asked.
No wonder the United States was whining on about "false hopes" yesterday. No wonder the Americans were searching desperately for another casus belli - be sure that they will find one - in an attempt to make sure that their next war keeps to its timetable. Be sure, too, that Saddam, that master of the post-agreement conditional clause, will have a few surprises for the UN inspectors when they do turn up in Baghdad. Will the UN boys be allowed to visit the Beast of Baghdad's palaces? Will they be waved through all checkpoints when they want to visit Tuwaitha or any of the other horror factories in which the Iraqis once cooked up their biological weapons?
But for now, the Americans have been sandbagged. It will take at least 25 days to put the UN inspection team together, another 60 for their preliminary assessment - always assuming they are given "unfettered" access to all Iraqi government facilities -- then another 60 days for further inspections. In other words, George Bush's latest war has been delayed by more than five months. Saddam, of course, must have his own worries. Back in 1996, the Iraqis were already accusing the UN inspectorate of working with the Israelis.
Major Scott Ritter, Iraq's nemesis-turned-savior, was indeed - as an inspector - regularly traveling to Tel Aviv to consult Israeli intelligence. Then Saddam accused the UN inspectors of working for the CIA. And he was right. The United States, it emerged, was using the UN's Baghdad offices to bug Iraq's government communications. And once the inspectors were withdrawn in 1998 and the US and Britain launched "Operation Desert Fox", it turned out that virtually every one of the bombing targets had been visited by UN inspectors over the previous six months. Far from being an inspectorate, the UN lads - though they didn't all know it - had been acting as forward air controllers, drawing up an American hit list rather than monitoring compliance with UN resolutions.
But a glance back at George Bush's UN speech last week shows that a free inspection of Saddam Hussein's supposed weapons of mass destruction was just one of six conditions which Iraq would have to meet if it "wishes peace". In other words, stand by for further UN Security Council resolutions which Saddam will find far more difficult to accept.
The other Bush demands, for example, included the "end of all support for terrorism". Does this mean the UN will now be urged to send inspectors to hunt for evidence inside Iraq for Saddam's previous - or current - liaisons with guns-for-hire?
Then Bush demanded that Iraq "cease persecution of its civilian population, including Shia, Sunnis, Kurds, Turkomans and others". Notwithstanding the inclusion of Turkomans - worthy of protection indeed, though one wonders how they turned up on the Bush list - does this mean that the UN could demand human rights monitors inside Iraq? In reality, such a proposal would be both moral and highly ethical, but America's Arab allies would profoundly hope that such monitors are not also dispatched to Riyadh, Cairo, Amman and other centers of gentle interrogation.
Yet even if Saddam was prepared to accede to all these demands with a sincerity he has not shown in response to other UN resolutions, the Americans have made clear that sanctions will only be lifted - that Iraq's isolation will only end - with "regime change". For Mr Bush's sudden passion for international adherence to UN Security Council resolutions -- an enthusiasm which will not, of course, extend to Israel's flouting of UN resolutions of equal importance - is in reality a cynical maneuver to provide legitimacy for Washington's planned invasion of Iraq.
My own suspicion is that the Americans may try for a war crimes indictment against Saddam Hussein. Mr Bush's crocodile tears for the victims of Saddam's secret police torturers - who were hard at work when the president's father was maintaining warm relations with the Iraqi monster - suggest that somebody in the administration is playing with the idea of a war crimes trial. The tens of thousands of Iraqis subject to "summary execution, and torture by beating, burning, electric shock, starvation, mutilation and rape" could provide the evidence for any war crimes prosecution. Indeed, when the Americans sealed off northern Iraq in 1991 to provide a dubious "safe haven" for the Kurds, they scooped up masses of Iraqi government documents, flew them out of Dohuk in a fleet of Chinook helicopters and squirreled them away in Washington as evidence for a possible future tribunal.
But even this idea has a hand grenade attached to it. Today, for example - and you will look elsewhere in vain for any mention of this - marks the 20th anniversary of the 1982 Sabra and Chatila massacre, the slaughter of 1,700 Palestinian civilians by Israel's Phalangist militia allies, a bloodbath which Israel's own army watched and noted - and did nothing about. Lawyers for the families of the victims are even now appealing against a Belgian decision not to allow Israel's prime minister, Ariel Sharon - then the defense minister who was judged "personally responsible" by Israel's commission of inquiry - to be tried for these mass murders.
If Saddam Hussein can be charged with war crimes - and he should be - then why not Ariel Sharon? Why not Rifaat Assad, the brother of the late president of Syria, whose Special Forces killed up to 20,000 Syrians in the rebellious city of Hama in 1982? Why not the Algerian police officers who have routinely tortured and murdered civilians in the country's dirty war against the "Islamist" insurgency?
But justice is not what President Bush wants - unless it's a useful
way of putting America's enemies out of the way, of effecting "regime
change" or of providing a useful excuse for a military invasion which
will leave US oil companies - including Mr Bush's own buddies - in
control of one of the world's largest reserves of oil. Saddam
Hussein's own cynicism - for he could have given UN inspectors free
rein years ago - will be matched by Mr Bush's cynicism. Saddam's
letter to Mr Annan was a smart move, as contemptuous as it was
inevitable. Stand by, then, for an equally contemptible response from
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