Pilot error over Iraq calls U.S. policy into question

April 15, 1994|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Yesterday's tragedy over Iraq puts a harsh spotlight on the United States' determination to keep punishing Saddam Hussein's regime at a time when that policy is already under strain.

Driven by commercial and political self-interest, France, Russia and even a couple of Persian Gulf monarchies have begun to retreat from a U.S.-led coalition that since 1991 has blocked any easing of sanctions against Iraq or the strict enforcement of no-fly zones innorthern and southern Iraq.

The commercial embargo is what has prevented Baghdad from emerging anew as a major oil exporter. But Europeans and Arabs alike have been laying the groundwork for future economic ties or trying to mend diplomatic relations with Iraq.

This trend could boost the long-term survival of Mr. Hussein's brutal dictatorship and have a destabilizing impact on key U.S. oil suppliers like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, which are both suffering from depressed oil prices and fearful of a stronger Iraq.

No one expects an imminent lifting of the sanctions imposed by the United Nations Security Council against Iraq after its invasion of Kuwait in August 1990. And it is unlikely that yesterday's events will speed the breakup of the coalition, since the countries involved recognize that it was an accident and the casualties were relatively limited.

But a significant split has emerged among the Security Council's five veto-wielding permanent members during a routine review in mid-March, marking a small victory for Iraq and foreshadowing a struggle ahead. For the first time, the council was unable to unite behind a consensus statement, although it agreed to maintain sanctions.

France and Russia want the United Nations to recognize the progress that Iraq has made in dismantling its dangerous weapon capability to give Mr. Hussein an incentive to continue cooperating.

Russia wants to let Iraq sell oil for the first time in four years if the Hussein regime complies with the provisions of the Gulf War cease-fire resolution during an intensive six-month monitoring period. France generally supports this position; so do Brazil and some other nonpermanent members of the Security Council.

Delegations from both Russia and France were reported to have gone to Iraq in recent months to lay the groundwork for business deals that could be consummated once the sanctions are lifted.

A lifting of the oil sale ban would not make Iraq suddenly flush with oil wealth, since its early revenues would likely be attached to pay war reparations and prewar debts. But Iraq's oil reserves are enormous and over time they would be a huge boon to Baghdad's strapped coffers and, thus, to Mr. Hussein's political strength.

The United States and Britain oppose any shift on what had been a consistent three-year Security Council refusal even to consider the easing of sanctions. Both want to keep Iraq a pariah state and demand to see cooperation with the United Nations across a broad front, including the recognition of Kuwait's borders and an end to the oppression of Shiite Muslims in southern Iraq's marsh areas and of Kurds in the north.

'Dual containment'

In a policy of "dual containment" of both Iran and Iraq spelled out last year, top White House aide Martin Indyk said the administration's intent "is to establish clearly and unequivocally that the current regime in Iraq is a criminal regime, beyond the pale of international society and, in our judgment, irredeemable."

But in a shift in emphasis, the Clinton administration is no longer making the case that sanctions should stay in place as long as Mr. Hussein remains in power.

Rather, the United States is now arguing in diplomatic circles that Iraq's "intent" to abandon weapons of mass destruction can only be measured by checking how Iraq is complying with other U.N. resolutions.

Even this approach may well bring disagreement with France, Russia and other powers, perhaps forcing the United States to threaten or exercise a veto before year's end. While that would prevent an easing of sanctions, it would almost certainly doom the coalition of anti-Iraq nations that was assembled before the 1991 Persian Gulf war.

Clinton administration officials play down the split and insist the coalition remains intact. But privately one senior administration official complained that "France and Russia, for craven commercial reasons, want to appear to be helping the Iraqis [so they can benefit] when contracts come up for negotiation."

Robert Satloff, head of a pro-Israel Washington think tank, who has close ties to some policy-makers, says that within the government "there's a recognition that there is an emerging problem. By the end of the year it will be an uphill battle."

Meanwhile, the coalition is under strain elsewhere. Both Oman and Qatar, Persian Gulf oil producers that previously sided with the United States and Saudi Arabia, have moved to improve diplomatic ties with Iraq and now favor a gradual easing of sanctions.

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