Russia raises doubts over bombing Iraq

January 19, 1993|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Fissures in the once-solid anti-Iraq coalitio deepened yesterday when Russia raised an alarm over civilian victims of allied military strikes and suggested further raids may require United Nations Security Council action.

If Russia, which holds a Security Council veto, were to force the issue, it could upset the political underpinning of the allied bombing and missile raids, which are based only on U.N. authority to enforce gulf war cease-fire accords, not a new Security Council resolution.

At a minimum, it will require closer coordination with Russia that may restrain the severity of further attacks.

Russia's new stance highlights the problem President-elect Bill Clinton will inherit in trying to hold the coalition together, a management dilemma he may have neither the experience nor the strong desire to personally handle now.

U.S.-led missile and bombing raids against Iraqi targets since last week also have drawn silence or outright criticism from Arab leaders. There are even hints of differences over tactics among the once rock-solid core of the coalition, the United States, Britain and France.

These cracks have appeared despite Iraq's blatant provocations against allied patrols over northern and southern no-fly zones, its challenge to United Nations weapons inspections and clear refusal to accept the United Nations' border demarcation between Iraq and Kuwait.

Perhaps more important, they came despite President Bush's RTC assiduous nurturing of coalition leaders with personal contacts that built up their trust and cut through disagreements at the United Nations.

While the outgoing president's "Rolodex diplomacy" draws criticism for skewing international affairs too much toward personal relationships, no one questions the dividends it paid during the Persian Gulf war and since.

"Bush spent his own time talking to key coalition leaders," says Sandra Charles, a former National Security Council official involved in gulf-war diplomacy.

"Because of that rapport we were able to move things so quickly at the U.N."

"With the Arabs in the beginning, and even with the Europeans, the whole issue was a matter of trust . . . The bottom line was that they trusted in his leadership [and knew he] would stay out front until the end," said Ms. Charles, who now runs a consulting firm.

Saddam Hussein chose a propitious moment to put that trust to the test. The United States is about to inaugurate a president without foreign policy experience who has staked his success on fixing long-neglected domestic problems.

And the Arab and Muslim worlds are in turmoil over growing agitation by fundamentalists, a turmoil fed by atrocities against Bosnian Muslims, months of stalling in the Mideast peace process and Israel's expulsion of Palestinians.

Russia, in both a Foreign Ministry statement and a letter delivered yesterday to the State Department, raised concerns about civilian deaths and the safety of its own people in Baghdad.

"The situation around Iraq has come to a critical stage," Foreign Minister Andrei V. Kozyrev said in a note delivered to the State Department by Russian Ambassador Vladimir P. Lukin. "There are casualties among civilian populations which is especially regrettable."

"We firmly believe that the reaction to Iraqi actions has to be adequate and flow only from agreed decisions," the note said.

"It seems there emerges a necessity to once again consider this situation in the U.N. Security Council."

The move came in part as a result of opposition pressure on President Boris N. Yeltsin, who repeatedly has sided with the United States in world affairs.

A senior U.S. official downplayed its significance.

"They want more consultations and discussions and our reaction is, 'That's fine with us,' " the official said.

"I don't think it's that the Russians are throwing a wrench in this thing," he said. "We're not dealing with a request for a new resolution at this point."

Yesterday, the Cairo-based Arab League said it "regrets the policy of military escalation against Iraq . . ."

In much of the Arab world, the coalition is in "bad shape," says Mohammed Wahby, an influential Washington-based Egyptian journalist and former diplomat. He cited, among other things, strong criticism of the United States appearing in Al-Ahram, an Egyptian daily often described as semi-official.

The reason, he said, is "fear of the Arab street." The crisis "plays straight into the hands of the Muslim fundamentalists," who have been strengthened by Western inaction to halt the war in Bosnia and especially by evidence of mass rapes of Muslim women.

To some extent, the current Iraqi crisis has eased Mr. Clinton's task by putting at least part of the coalition back in fighting trim.

By now, "everybody's used to it. All the rules are set," says a U.S. diplomat with recent experience in dealing with Iraq.

He will be helped, as well, by the desire of many foreign leaders to establish a relationship with the new president.

But it took months of cumulative provocations to solidify the coalition to again make war on Iraq, a senior administration official says.

And even now, despite repeated telephone contacts by President Bush with his counterparts in Britain, France and Turkey, the unified coalition's position has seemed less seamless in action.

Few expect the current level of punishment to subdue Iraq for long.

Mr. Clinton will have to step in quickly to demonstrate leadership of the coalition, a U.S. diplomat said. Last week, he showed reluctance to become enmeshed in the problem, saying he didn't want to become obsessed with it.

But holding Western allies together is only part of his challenge, Mr. Wahby says.

"The best thing Clinton can do is hasten the peace process between Arabs and Israelis," starting with efforts to defuse the crisis over expulsion of the Palestinians into Lebanon.

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