Iraq, Yugoslavia linked by status as outcasts in 'New World Disorder'

June 15, 1993|By Los Angeles Times

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- In the practical world of pariah politics, Yugoslav Gen. Zivota Panic's agenda when he arrived here for a secret meeting appeared to be the perfect marriage of convenience: arms for oil.

Through an impressive postwar reconstruction program, Iraq has restored its ability to produce as much as 6 million barrels a day; its sale of oil abroad is prohibited under harsh U.N. trade sanctions that also bar Baghdad from importing spare parts for its war-wounded armed forces.

And the rump Yugoslavia, starved for oil under its own strict U.N. sanctions, is awash with military hardware, including scores of Iraqi MIG-21 and MIG-23 fighter jets that Baghdad sent to the Balkans for maintenance before President Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990.

United solely in their international isolation, General Panic, the Yugoslav military chief of staff, and his Iraqi counterparts agreed in March to set up teams to search for geographic and logistic cracks in the U.N. embargo that prohibits such trade to or from either country, Serbian and Iraqi sources say. They add that it is unlikely any arms or oil actually have changed hands.

But, Serbian sources confirm, General Panic did achieve another key part of his mission during five days of touring Baghdad and meeting with top military strategists, including powerful Defense Minister Ali Hassan Majid: He gathered advice on how to survive U.S.-led allied air strikes.

At a time when Bosnia-Herzegovina, a former Yugoslav republic, was -- and remains -- a U.S. presidential order away from becoming an American military target, General Panic sought advice from the world's experts in ground-zero survival. The Iraqi regime, after all, lived to rebuild its nation after enduring thousands of U.S.-led bombing runs and cruise missile strikes in the allied assault that destroyed much of the country in 1991.

Such are the first hints of emerging alliances and potentially powerful anti-American blocs in what the Iraqi leadership calls "the New World Disorder." In this era, many Western and Eastern diplomats agree, pragmatism and nationalism are rapidly replacing communism and socialism as the unifying forces of America's international foes.

Those links among nations shunned, impugned and isolated by the West -- including North Korea, Iran, Libya, Cuba and Iraq -- are often difficult to detect, let alone assess, by the countries that put them on the pariah list. But a glimpse of recent meetings between Belgrade and Baghdad offers a rare but telling illustration of the motives and methods behind one such new economic and military relationship.

Question of survival

For the Serbs, who had sought to keep quiet Mr. Panic's visit to Iraq and a similar fact-finding mission to Libya a month before, the issue is, in the words of one diplomat, "purely a question of how do we survive. The U.S. and the international community have thrown us out of the class. We are not bound by their rules anymore. So, the question is, 'How can we help each other survive?' "

The Iraqi leadership briefly acknowledged but played down the practical import of the Yugoslav commander's visit. The state-run press reported simply that he and Iraqi military chiefs discussed ways to coordinate stands "to counter moves by the U.S.-led camp to destroy the unity of the Third World peoples." But the visit's symbolism clearly mattered to them.

General Panic's trip may not have immediate effects on Iraq, say diplomats and military analysts in Baghdad and elsewhere in the Middle East. They speak with admiration about Iraq's success in rebuilding its military, despite acute shortages of machinery and spare parts.

But for the Serbs, who learned much from Iraq's experience under relentless, U.S.-led aerial assaults, Mr. Hammadi added, "To them? Well, maybe."

Supply and demand

Beyond the air-strike survival data that General Panic sought from Iraq, it was oil and military spare parts, and the powerful forces of supply and demand, that combined to drive the regimes together.

Mr. Hussein has, within just two years, reassembled a military machine that is estimated at half the size of his prewar arsenal; before the Persian Gulf War, some military analysts had ranked the Iraqi military as fourth in the world in size and firepower.

In May, the regime demonstrated its return as a regional military power during an impressive parade through Baghdad for Mr. Hussein's 56th birthday. For 3 1/2 hours, sophisticated Soviet-made tanks rolled five abreast, along with artillery pieces, missile batteries and crack commandos. Squadrons of jet fighters screamed overhead.

But, in at least one Baghdad neighborhood, there was a stark reminder of the awesome challenge facing the regime. Several tanks broke down and had to be removed by cranes and trucks.

"The regime has done a superb job of rebuilding, but now the test will be maintenance," said one military analyst in the region. "Iraq desperately needs military spare parts."

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