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Issue 35, February 1999

US air strikes on Iraq

    UNSCOM's US intelligence role
    The Last Superpower

Even more than previous clashes with Iraq, December's air strikes have revealed the limits of US power in the 'new world order'. TOM MOODY writes.

BETWEEN 16-19 DECEMBER US imperialism - supported by its British poodle, under New Labour leadership - launched a wave of air strikes on Iraq. Over 400 cruise missiles were unleashed, together with 650 air raids. The targets, claimed the Pentagon, were military - but there were undoubtedly civilian casualties and deaths. The destruction of infrastructure, factories and other facilities will impose even more suffering on the Iraqi people, who are already experiencing mass poverty, hunger and disease as a result of sanctions - themselves a weapon of mass destruction. According to the UN children's agency, UNICEF, sanctions claim the lives of over 200 children a day.

During January, US jets have continued to attack Iraqi anti-aircraft missile installations. US and British forces in the Gulf are being strengthened. It is quite probable that, in the near future, there will be a repeat performance of the December strikes. Acting unilaterally, the US (with the support of only Britain) has thrown off the flimsy cover of collective UN action, with Clinton's officials openly proclaiming that US policy is 'containment plus regime change'. Their aim is not primarily to eliminate weapons of mass destruction according to UN Resolution 687 (which also calls for the removal of weapons of mass destruction throughout the Middle East): it is to smash Saddam Hussein's military capacity and overthrow his regime.

The US is not opposed to Saddam's regime because it has weapons of mass destruction. Israel has nuclear capacity (recently assisting India's nuclear tests) and undoubtedly keeps stockpiles of chemical weapons. Nor does the US oppose Saddam's regime because it is an extremely repressive dictatorship. The US is closely allied with the regimes in, for instance, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, which are also highly oppressive - and with Israel, which uses systematic repression against the Palestinians. With these allies, no serious attempts have been made to move towards nuclear, chemical, and biological weapon disarmament proposed by Resolution 687.

The US is opposed to Saddam's regime because it is an obstacle to its strategic interests in the region. Oil is still a key factor. The low-cost reserves of the five Middle East producers (Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, Kuwait and UAE) are currently supplying nearly 30% of global demand (after declining to only 16% in 1986). At the same time, strategically, US imperialism regards it as vital to retain military domination of the region. Alongside the US's alliance with the state of Israel, its two key policies in the region are containment of Iran and the overthrow of Saddam's regime.

  top     UNSCOM's US intelligence role

THE TIMING OF the December air strikes was a cynical manoeuvre on Clinton's part, to try to postpone or divert the Republicans' moves towards impeachment: $400m of cruise missiles gained him a day. Essentially, however, the raids were a continuation of the policy which Clinton's administration decided on in October 1997. Clinton and his advisers had decided to launch air strikes but the plan was derailed by the Baghdad mission of the UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, in February 1998. The compromise agreed between Annan and Saddam for resumed inspections by the UN's special commission, UNSCOM, was seized on by other members of the UN Security Council as a reason for avoiding military action.

Russia, increasingly in conflict with US policy internationally and maintaining links with Saddam's regime, is strongly opposed to military action. So is France, which favours a 'normalisation' of the region in order to develop its business interests in Iraq (and Iran). The overwhelming majority of Middle Eastern and third world governments oppose military action against Iraq, fearing the angry response US military strikes provoke amongst their populations.

The US was wrong-footed by Annan's initiative, and took a step backwards. But it did not withdraw its forces from the Gulf. Clinton's administration clearly decided to prepare the ground more thoroughly for action. If the UN would not provide multilateral legitimacy, the US would pre-empt UN decisions. If the UN failed to act, the US would act alone - in the name, of course, of UN principles.

The role of UNSCOM, according to the US State Department scenario, was not to pressure Saddam to dismantle what remained of his capacity to produce weapons of mass destruction. The Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, long ago (26 March 1997) made it clear that compliance was not the real issue: "We do not agree with the nations who argue that if Iraq complies with its obligations concerning weapons of mass destruction, sanctions should be lifted. Our view is that Iraq must prove its peaceful intentions… and the evidence is overwhelming that Saddam Hussein's intentions will never be peaceful". (Le Monde Diplomatique, January 1999). UNSCOM's role was to provide justification for an attack on Iraq, at the same time providing a useful cover for intelligence operations.

  Early in January, the Washington Post reported that US intelligence had used UNSCOM to penetrate the security apparatus protecting Saddam. One of Annan's advisers told the paper: "The Secretary General has become aware of the fact that UNSCOM directly facilitated the creation of an intelligence collection system for the US in violation of its mandate". (International Herald Tribune, 7 January). These allegations were furiously denied by Richard Butler, the head of UNSCOM. The New York Times initially denounced the stories as an attempt by Annan to undermine Butler in order to replace him. It was soon reported, however, that: "US officials now admit that American spies worked undercover on teams of UN arms inspectors seeking secret Iraqi weapons programmes… By being part of the team, the Americans gained first-hand knowledge of the investigation and a protected presence inside Baghdad… The US included some intelligence officers (in their UNSCOM contingent), using diplomatic cover or other professional identities, to gather intelligence independently, according to the officials". (International Herald Tribune, 8 January)

When the time came, Butler provided the US with the justification it was seeking. In fact, as news reports later revealed, the White House virtually dictated Butler's conclusions - which actually contradicted the facts in his report. Out of 300 UNSCOM inspections the Iraqi regime had failed to comply with five. Visits to the 'presidential sites', the cause of the crisis early in 1998, had yielded no results. The incidents highlighted by Butler reportedly arose from provocative visits to government or Ba'ath Party building (visits which arguably contradicted the February 1998 agreement between Kofi Annan and the Iraqi prime minister, Tariq Aziz).

The report of the International Atomic Energy Authority, which accompanied the UNSCOM report, stated that IAEA had received Iraqi cooperation and that there was no evidence that Baghdad has any viable nuclear weapons programme. Only in November, Butler himself had said that Iraq was near to conforming with UN criteria on the question of missiles and chemical weapons, leaving only bacterialogical weapons as 'a black hole'. Moreover, UNSCOM had installed hundreds of surveillance cameras to monitor 'sensitive sites'.

Saddam's military capacity primarily rests on the conventional forces which he relies on to sustain his rule within Iraq. The regime probably retains some stockpiles of chemical weapons, like most of the other regimes in the region. Whether there are any currently active production facilities for nuclear, chemical and biological is doubtful. However, even if all production facilities were eliminated, that would not stop the Iraqi regime, like any other, utilising its technical knowledge and drawing on overseas suppliers of technology, to resume production at a later date.

  top     The last superpower

ON DECEMBER 15 the White House informed congressional leaders that US forces would attack Iraq on the following day.

At this point, the assault on Iraq was carefully choreographed by the White House for maximum propaganda effect in the US. Clinton had just returned from his visit to Israel/Palestine, where he made a much publicised speech to the Palestine National Council expressing sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians. The air strikes began on the afternoon of 16 December, in time for prime-time television news and just as the UN General Assembly was meeting to discuss the Butler report. Security Council members, like everybody else, learned of the raids from television news.

Nobody, of course, failed to note that the air strikes began just as the House of Representatives was due to begin debating the impeachment motions against the president. The raids continued until the afternoon of Saturday 17 December, and were called off shortly after the House voted to impeach Clinton on two counts. This was a political diversion for which the Iraqi people paid a heavy price.

What are the results of the raid for US imperialism? The attack has not toppled Saddam's regime, nor has it strengthened the US's strategic power in the region. Asking "what exactly was the point?", the Wall Street Journal (22 January) commented: "Operation Desert Fox was an admission that the policy of the past eight years has failed, but it was not a new solution… the bombings were a reminder of the kind of force only America can project, and its willingness to use it". But the attack was also "a chilling testament to the insufficiency of power without credible leadership". This arises not merely from Clinton's cynical opportunism, as the right-wing pro-Republican Journal implies, but the impasse faced by the world's only remaining superpower.

  Like the recent cruise missile attacks on Afghanistan and Sudan, Operation Desert Fox, while demonstrating the US's military capacity, ultimately underlines the weakness of US imperialism. While undoubtedly 'degrading' Saddam's military capacity, the effects are temporary. Air strikes alone cannot impose a change on the regime - which could only be assured by the intervention of ground forces. Such an intervention was ruled out by Bush in 1991, even when the US had the support of a grand coalition of powers, including Russia and Syria, which is certainly not the case now. The high level of US casualties which would be inevitable would provoke a massive political reaction within the US.

The US Congress recently passed the Iraq Liberation Act, which allocated $97m and supplies of used US military equipment for the Iraqi opposition. While the administration pays lip service to this policy, pushed on the White House by Congress, "the administration and the CIA had largely given up on new efforts to overthrow Mr Hussein, given embarrassing failures in the past. While cabinet members assert publicly that there is a new seriousness to the effort to bring him down, senior officials joke that the money will provide the Iraqi opposition, whose leaders live in London, with American armoured personnel carriers in which to ride through Mayfair". (New York Times, 21 December)

Even supporters of the Iraq Liberation Act, such as Republican senator Sam Brownback (Kansas), have conceded the difficulty of pursuing "a comprehensive plan… (to) build up a legitimate government in exile: We've got to force them to meet, to gather, to come up with something. Other countries in the region would rather we go in and find an Iraqi general. But each country has its favourite candidate". (IHT, 4 January)

Ecevit, who recently returned as prime minister of Turkey, has sharply criticised US policy towards Iraq and warned that any further escalation could lead to the ending of US use of the Incirlik air base, vital to US air patrols over the Northern Exclusion Zone. This threat is partly motivated by resentment at the effect of trade sanctions, which have cost Turkey billions of dollars. But above all it reflects fears of the Turkish ruling class that recent efforts by the US to forge an alliance between the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan could lead to the partition of Iraq and the creation of an independent Kurdish state on Turkey's border - something which the Turkish regime has been fighting against for over 14 years.

  This points to a broader issue. The collapse of Saddam's regime could lead to the break up of Iraq, with intervention by surrounding regimes such as Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, either directly or through proxies. Far from stabilising the region, this will inevitably provoke new conflicts.

The Gulf war coalition of 1991 is reduced to two partners, the US and Britain. None of the Arab regimes in the region has been prepared to openly support the recent US attacks. Fearing the growing anger of the masses, shown in the huge demonstrations provoked by the air raids in December, even Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have tried to distance themselves from current US policy. While they would like to see an end to Saddam, they fear that further US attacks will provoke growing rebellion against their own regimes. In fact, the Islamic forces which last year carried out bombing attacks on US embassies in East Africa and elsewhere, are linked to the opposition to the regimes in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. At the same time, the Israel/Palestine peace process has collapsed (see p21).

All imperialist forces should be withdrawn from the Gulf. Historically, the Western powers intervened to facilitate the plundering of oil and other resources by the multinational corporations. They armed dictatorial regimes in an attempt to secure their strategic power in the region. In the case of Iraq, the Western powers built up Saddam as a weapon against Iran's Islamic regime. When Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990, threatening Western oil supplies, he changed from being an ally to an enemy. Historically, imperialist intervention is the region's main problem - it can provide no solutions.

Opposition to the imperialist intervention in Iraq, however, does not imply any support for Saddam's regime. It is a ruthless dictatorship. But the task of overthrowing his regime is the task of the Iraqi people, who deserve the support of the international working class.

For a copy of a statement on US/British Bombing of Iraq, issued by the Committee for a Workers' International (CWI) on 17 December 1998, contact the CWI, PO Box 3688, London, E9 5QX or e-mail

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