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New U.S. Strategy on Iraq Falters

Mideast: Bush's bid to ease sanctions and resume inspections appears deadlocked at the United Nations. Experts say policy would be hard to enforce.

July 02, 2001|ROBIN WRIGHT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Four months after promising a bold new strategy on Iraq, the Bush administration is instead watching its first foreign policy initiative fall into disarray.

At the United Nations, a last-minute scramble by the U.S. and Britain to win passage of a resolution opening the way for the multilayered strategy appears deadlocked. The resolution would provide the legal framework for easing the world's toughest economic sanctions--and the suffering of the Iraqi people--while tightening the arms embargo on Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

The current sanctions policy, which began in the wake of the 1991 Persian Gulf War evicting Iraqi forces from Kuwait and allows Baghdad to use oil revenue to buy humanitarian goods under U.N. supervision, expires Tuesday. It is now likely to be renewed for another month or two while the debate rages on.

And even if the resolution wins passage, key Middle East governments once receptive to a revised policy are now either wary of the U.S. formula or no longer keen to help make it work. Some who have been trading for cheap oil in violation of the sanctions can't afford to end such operations. Compliance would cost economically strapped Jordan, for example, at least $1 billion a year, Arab envoys say.

As a result, cutting off the world's largest and most lucrative oil-smuggling operation via four neighboring states looks increasingly difficult. Smuggling provides Hussein with billions of dollars in income a year, his only significant source of funds not channeled through the U.N.

"Without major incentives, Jordan, Syria, Iran and Turkey are unlikely to agree" to a new policy, concludes a new report sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations.

The bottom line is that the new strategy, which would streamline the list of goods prohibited to Iraq, might alleviate suffering among the Iraqi people--the issue that led Washington to succumb to international pressure and propose an overhaul of the decade-old policy. But the new policy would be as vulnerable to failure as the previous strategy in keeping a disparate array of countries on board, according to Mideast officials, European diplomats, U.S. analysts and former U.N. weapons inspectors.

Part of the problem is that much of the world is almost as weary as Iraq of the punitive approach, which affects foreign investors, Baghdad's creditors, energy markets and Iraq's 22 million people.

"The new policy will be highly vulnerable to several factors, many beyond U.S. control. They include new factors like backlash from the Arab streets for U.S. support of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon," said Judith Yaphe, a former intelligence analyst now at National Defense University in Washington. "They include ingrained practices that will make it almost impossible to cut off all Iraq's oil smuggling.

"But they also include a world that simply doesn't care as much as we do and is anxious to do business with Baghdad again. It's going to be very hard to get cooperation from enough of the players to make a new policy work."

The new strategy is most vulnerable, however, on the issue of eliminating Baghdad's deadliest weapons. Since 1991, the preeminent U.N. goal has been to ensure that Iraq does not again threaten stability in the oil-rich region. U.N. sanctions will not be lifted until Iraq is given a clean bill of health by U.N. weapons inspectors. As reformulated, the new strategy could even backfire, according to former U.N. weapons inspectors and U.S. analysts.

'An Inspection Regime That Is Ready to Go In'

At his Senate confirmation hearings, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell warned that "the only tool [Hussein] can scare us with are those weapons of mass destruction, and we have to hold him to account. We have an inspection regime that is ready to go in under new U.N. authority."

But the mandate of the new inspection regime, approved by the U.N. Security Council in December 1999, has changed in subtle ways that could make ensuring that all of Iraq's nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and long-range missiles are destroyed virtually impossible--even if Baghdad accepts the inspectors--U.S. analysts and former inspectors warn.

The original inspectors--who tracked down thousands of tons of weapons between 1991 and 1998--were charged with certifying that all the deadliest arms were found and eliminated. And they had virtual carte blanche to do it, backed by the threat of military retaliation if Iraq didn't comply.

Their mission was aborted, however, when they were withdrawn before the U.S.-led Operation Desert Fox airstrikes in 1998. The strikes were launched in response to Hussein's obstruction of weapons inspectors, and Iraq never let them return.

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