By David M. ShribmanBoston Globe
March 12, 2002
President Bush made it clear yesterday that the United States regards Iraq as a potential military threat - and as a potential military target.
But as the president examines his options in forcing a "regime change" - a new term of art here - in Baghdad, the leading indicators of American action might not be the movement of US special forces and support ships in the Persian Gulf but the movement of diplomats and financiers in Paris and Moscow.
Since the beginning of the decade-long struggle between the United States and Iraq, France and Russia have been the leading powers sympathetic to Saddam Hussein. Linked by oil contracts, military sales, and loans, they have been Iraq's partisans, protectors, and proxies. Now, with a growing sense that Bush sees Iraq's chemical and biological weapons programs as regional or even global threats, the State Department is keeping an eye on France and Russia. If the two, members of the United Nations Security Council, deplore UN sanctions and help Baghdad buy more time in its efforts to restrict the movement of weapons inspectors or to keep them away entirely, the administration will know that diplomatic efforts will be unavailing. If, on the other hand, France and Russia begin to take a harder line against Iraq, they will be sending a potent message inside Iraq.
"If Iraq realizes that its principal supporters, France and Russia, have gone wobbly, then that will send an important signal to the people you most want to convince in Iraq that the regime will change - the upper-level technocrats," said Charles A. Duelfer, former deputy chairman of the United Nations Special Commission on Iraq.
Indeed, the State Department is increasingly convinced that France and Russia could do more to avoid a military confrontation by standing up to Baghdad than by standing by Baghdad.
Here's why: France and Russia are far less concerned about the viability of Saddam Hussein than they are about the viability of their own oil and manufacturing contracts. By toughening their approach to Baghdad - and by prompting an internal rebellion against Saddam Hussein - they could help assure a new stability in Iraq that would actually help get their contracts renewed and their loans repaid.
Russian and French economic interests are not insignificant. Few reliable statistics are available, but trade between Russia and Iraq could run as high as $4 billion a year. The Russian firm Lukoil, which is trying to extract 667 million tons of crude from the West Qurna oil field, says its contracts could be worth another $20 billion. And Iraq still owes Russia $7 billion for weapons purchased during the Cold War.
France's economic stake is also substantial. The largest long-term contract in Iraq's oil-for-food program is with Paris. But Iraq has toyed with France, which has helped develop industrial support for Iraq's military and helped build the nation's electronics facilities. Shortly after France expressed support for a UN resolution on sanctions last year, Iraqi radio said, "France will not be given preference in trade transactions with Iraq in the future because of its support of the stupid anti-Iraq draft resolution on sanctions."
Yesterday, Bush went out of his way to speak of "our good ally France."
France and Russia have historically been more comfortable dealing with each other than with the United States and Britain. Though opposed in the Crimean War, Paris and Moscow were allied before and during World War I, when the center of Europe was dominated by Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, making the two other major continental powers, France and Russia, feel they were at the periphery.
The two nations, of course, have frequently been irritants, or worse, to the English-speaking nations. After World War II, the French alienated the United States by objecting to NATO initiatives and thwarted Britain's efforts to join the European Union.
Indeed, wherever Britain has pulled back, the French have moved forward, particularly in Africa and the Middle East. Britain once held the League of Nations mandate for the area that now includes Iraq, and when the British withdrew at midcentury, the French replaced them.
Right now the United States and the United Nations seldom deal directly with Iraq. They deal instead with France and Russia.
"The strategy-making between Russia and Iraq was very close," said Timothy V. McCarthy, a former weapons inspector in Iraq. "It's not that the Russians were Iraq's mouthpiece, but they were discussing the crisis together, figuring out how to respond together. It wasn't the Iraqis off by themselves. They were talking with the Russians." The State Department would love to know what the Iraqis are saying - but, even more important, what they are hearing.
More Information on Sanction Against Iraq
More Information on Questioning Saddam's Regime
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