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Middle East Still Suffers From Fallout of Warfare : Legacy: Rubble clearing goes on, and the historical impact of Iraq's defeat is not yet in view.

THE GULF WAR: A Year Later. One in a series

January 17, 1992|NICK B. WILLIAMS Jr. | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Only an occasional helicopter and the shuttle flight to Basra cross the skies over Baghdad these days. A year ago, 2 hours and 40 minutes past midnight, every quarter was etched with chilling violence, tracer shells slicing upward toward unseen fighter-bombers, Saddam Hussein's capital shaking with explosions. The Persian Gulf War had begun.

It lasted only six weeks; the ground offensive drove the Iraqi army from Kuwait in just four days. But the brief, brutal conflict, and the six-month confrontation that preceded it, scarred the Middle East, particularly its politics. The shock waves are still reverberating, and it's too soon to tell whether the Iraqi defeat will have a lasting legacy such as, for instance, the deep divisions left by the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.

Positive results are few: Kuwait is liberated, the Iraqi war machine smashed and the shrouds removed from Baghdad's hidden experiments in nuclear and chemical warfare. The diplomatic momentum of victory gave the Bush Administration the clout to assemble the Middle East peace talks.

The casualties are clear: Hunger and disease for the Iraqi people--Sunni and Shiite Muslims and Kurds--still oppressed by a brutal leader; hundreds of thousands of Palestinians cast out of the Gulf states and into poverty in Jordan. The oil sheiks show no sign of reconciliation with countries that tilted to Iraq. A tide of fundamentalism surges against the weakened foundations of secular states.

A year after the first bombs fell on Baghdad, the rubble is still being cleared, and the historical impact of the war can only start to be measured. The postwar developments:

IRAQ

Hussein and his loyal legions, most of them purchased by privilege, have kept a lid on simmering discontent. In the north, the regime has played carrot-and-stick with the Kurds, blockading food supplies and offering calculated deals on autonomy.

But, bottom line, the Baghdad government has no control over wide stretches of the mountainous north. Kurdish guerrillas, outgunned, present only a thin defensive line, but they are backed by a civilian population in continuous rebellion against Baghdad's control. Hussein cannot use his air power to terrorize the Kurds for risk of losing it to American warplanes operating out of Turkish bases.

In the south, the Shiite Muslim population, an estimated 60% of Iraq's 17 million people, live under the guns of the Iraqi army and its overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim officer corps. Both sides are edgy; memories of the blood baths of the spring rebellion are still sharp. Prisons are filled with Shiite civilians, and arrests continue.

In Baghdad and the surrounding Sunni heartland, the authority of the regime is tested by economic collapse. Middle-class families are desperate, with inflation galloping at an annual rate of more than 1,000%. Only the army has received pay raises.

Yet Hussein remains, isolated but in power. He has shuffled his Cabinet five times since the war ended, bringing the key ministries--police, military--into the hands of his immediate family. Exiled opponents of the regime insist that there have been at least three major coup attempts staged within the military. All failed and were followed by widespread executions, the exiles report.

The U.N. economic embargo remains in place a year after the war began. U.S. and other allied warships in the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Aqaba are still stopping vessels suspected of carrying contraband goods for Iraq. The sanctions will remain in place until Hussein complies fully with the cease-fire agreement, and he has so far resisted in at least one category--fully disclosing Iraq's nuclear, chemical and biological warfare capabilities.

Food, which is not banned, is crossing the Turkish, Iranian and Jordanian borders, but it is prohibitively priced by the time it reaches the capital. Medicine, also exempt, is even scarcer.

A comprehensive study in October funded by the U.N. Children's Fund, British Oxfam and two American foundations estimated that close to a million Iraqi children are malnournished and more than 100,000 are starving. "Like living dead," said one of the researchers, Prof. Magne Raundalen of the University of Bergen in Norway. Only about 40% of electrical capacity has been restored, and power shortages have disabled water-purification and sewage plants. Most Iraqis are drinking contaminated water.

Since last summer, a U.N. program has been available to Hussein that would open the blockade enough to let Iraq sell $1.6 billion worth of oil to buy food and medicine but would require that some of the proceeds be set aside for war reparations to Kuwait. The plan also requires international supervision to assure that supplies go to the needy. Iraq has rejected the proposal as a violation of its sovereignty, and negotiations last week failed to resolve the differences.

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