August 7, 2000
* The Arabs should do what the Russians and French plan to do by operating flights to Baghdad, since the air ban has no basis in UN resolutions -- Egypt's al-Ahram
* Venezuelan president intends to become the first foreign head of state to visit Iraq since the Gulf war this week as American activists go on hunger strike in protest against the sanctions and Syria reactivates rail link with Iraq
* It will not be easy to overcome the U.S. -British-Israeli opposition to lifting the sanctions, but there are increasing signs that the embargo will eventually collapse -- Ahmad Abdelghani in Akhbar al-Khaleej
* Ten years on, it has become evident that Washington and Saddam converge on keeping his regime in power -- Abdelwahhab Badrakhan in al-Hayat
* It would have been better to use this 10th anniversary to help rid the Iraqi people of sanctions instead of inundating Arab readers with "scenarios of regime change" which overlook the current reality in the Arab world -- Omran Salman in Akhbar al-Khaleej
With American activists on hunger strike in Baghdad to protest against decade -old crippling sanctions against Iraq, Egypt's leading official daily al-Ahram Monday calls on Arab states to break the air ban on Iraq, as France and Russia intend to do "in defiance" of the United States.
In its leader comment, the paper says the announcement that a French plane would fly to Baghdad next month in protest against the sanctions, which entered their 11th year on Sunday, "backs up the trend initiated by Russia when its foreign minister stated a few days ago that flights between Moscow and Baghdad would begin soon" given that UN Security Council resolutions pertaining to Iraq do not prohibit such flights. This, it notes, was reiterated by the French foreign ministry, which said there was no basis in law to the air ban on Iraq.
Al-Ahram was referring to remarks by a French foreign ministry spokesman last Friday that a flight by French public figures to Baghdad planned for September 29 would not violate UN resolutions on Iraq. Stressing that the ministry learned of the planned trip from the press, the spokesman said the Security Council had never adopted a text banning all air traffic to and from Iraq. He said UNSCR 661 of August 6, 1990, which imposed sanctions on Iraq, banned commercial and financial exchanges with the country, thus making it impossible to operate regular flights except on the basis of special arrangements, while UNSCR 670 of September 25, 1990 called for monitoring the movement of goods to and from Iraq.
A non-commercial passenger flight would not fall under either of the two resolutions, the spokesman said of the September 29 trip planned by a French group including former foreign minister Claude Cheysson.
It goes without saying that France and Russia did not suddenly discover that UN resolutions do not impose an air ban on Iraq, al-Ahram comments. But Paris and Moscow decided to base themselves on this fact "in defying the American quest to step up the blockade and the pressures on Baghdad." This, after Washington's vindictive policy vis-a-vis Baghdad has become incomprehensible and aimed at causing harm for harm's sake, i.e. it does not achieve any purpose except violating the Iraqi people's basic human rights and preventing them from using their resources to improve their living conditions.
While Moscow and Paris may be driven by the huge interests they have with Baghdad, and which can be pursued if the embargo is lifted, Arab states are called upon to take the initiative and contribute effectively to ending the unfair embargo. They should begin by operating flights between Baghdad and "sisterly Arab capitals," which are not banned by UN resolutions, the Egyptian daily says.
FIRST VISIT: Pending such an initiative by Arab governments, it is Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez who will become the first foreign head of state to visit Iraq since the 1991 Gulf war.
Chavez, who has made a point of staking out an independent foreign policy, plans to visit Iraq on August 10 as part of a tour of OPEC nations designed to strengthen the oil cartel as a global force. He intends to invite his counterparts to a planned September 27 OPEC heads of state summit in Caracas, the first summit of its kind since 1975.
Chavez's itinerary takes in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Iran, Iraq, Indonesia, Libya, Nigeria and Algeria.
The itinerary provided by the Venezuelan foreign ministry shows Chavez departing Iran on August 10 and arriving in Iraq two hours later. But no details have been provided on how he and his entourage would travel to Baghdad.
"Some say (Iraqi President) Saddam Hussein is the devil, but the devil is in hell," Chavez told foreign reporters last week. "We're all sons of God."
Venezuelan foreign ministry spokeswoman Mary Forero said on Sunday the planned visit should not be cause for concern.
"It's not extraordinary that Chavez is going to Iraq to converse with Saddam, because the success of the OPEC summit (in Caracas) depends on the attendance of the presidents of those countries," she said.
AMERICAN PROTESTERS: In Baghdad, four members of a U.S. pressure group Sunday began a three-day fast in front of UN headquarters to protest against the sanctions, which according to UN estimates have claimed the lives of close to one million Iraqi civilians, over half of them children below the age of five.
"We (have) come to the United Nations to fast and in vigil to mark the 10th anniversary of the imposition of sanctions on Iraq," Lisa Gizzi, a member of Chicago-based Voices in the Wilderness, said.
Across a highway from the UN compound in Iraq, the four Americans set up a tent under a few trees -- scant protection from the scorching heat -- and vowed to consume only water for three days.
"What we are doing is nothing compared to the suffering of Iraqis," said Kathy Kelly, who helped found the anti-sanctions group four years ago. "We hope that our government will wake up to the fact that thousands of innocent people are dying because of their political ambitions."
The four hunger strikers and two other Americans arrived in July to spend two months in Iraq, mostly in the southern city of Basra, where the six have been living on the same food rations as Iraqis and coping with power cuts, bad water and a damaged sewer system.
Elsewhere on Sunday, Dave Rolstone of Wales, a Voices in the Wilderness activist, climbed part way up the Millennium Wheel -- London's 450-foot-tall Ferris wheel -- to protest the sanctions.
In Washington, more than 300 people, including Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader and folk singer Pete Seeger, ended a day of marches and rallies with a protest at Lafayette Park, across the street from the White House.
"This policy represents a massive injustice against Iraqi civilians," said Nader. "And it must be ended -- not after Mr. Clinton leaves office, but now."
Charles Sheehan-Miles, who said he served with the army's 24th Infantry Division during the Gulf war, said the policy of sanctions was not working and should be ended immediately.
"We're causing people to die; it's time to end this," he said.
In the Jordanian capital Amman, more than 200 activists called for the sanctions, which were imposed after Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, to be lifted during a rally outside UN offices. They handed over a letter at the office addressed to Kofi Annan that urged the UN secretary-general to "side with justice and humanity" and get the sanctions lifted.
EROSION: Egyptian commentator Ahmad Abdelghani, citing the Russian and other examples, detects signs that the 10-year-old sanctions are gradually eroding.
Many nations have come to see the sanctions for what they are -- an unprecedented case of genocide, he writes Monday in Bahrain's Akhbar al -Khaleej. And several of those countries have started to strive for an end to the sanctions, which are being used by the United States and Britain to undertake actions that have no basis in UN resolutions, Abdelghani says.
The latest sign that the sanctions are nearing their end transpired during Iraqi Deputy Premier Tarek Aziz's visit to Moscow last month. During his meeting with Aziz, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared that Moscow would seek to lift the sanctions, and this was reiterated by Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, who also said that Moscow would do its best to unblock Russian contracts with Iraq held up by the UN sanctions committee -- under U.S. pressure, of course.
One of the main promises Aziz received pertained to a possible resumption of civilian flights between Moscow and Baghdad, Abdelghani remarks. Russian officials stated that Moscow sees no legal impediment to the resumption of civilian air traffic between the two countries and that only technical matters remained to be resolved.
When the U.S. criticized Putin's meeting with Aziz, Ivanov retorted that Russia was an independent and sovereign state, and it alone decided with whom it should forge ties.
Should Russia go ahead and resume civilian flights to Iraq, the United States will certainly not shoot down, or even attempt to intercept, the Russian planes. This will encourage other countries to follow in Moscow's footsteps, especially since UN resolutions do not ban such flights.
It is noteworthy that the head of the French interests section in Baghdad also declared a few days ago that the air ban on Iraq had no legal basis and that there were plans to organize flights from Europe and elsewhere to Iraq. If the plans materialize, together with the resumption of Russian flights, the entire sanctions regime will begin to crumble and no force will be able to prevent its collapse.
As Russia was making its views known, Egyptian Foreign Minister Amr Mousa was calling for an end to the sanctions imposed on Iraq, saying the perpetuation of the embargo was not acceptable to the Arabs. Commenting on Putin's call for an end to the U.S.-British air strikes against Iraq, Mousa remarked that many countries had been altering their stand vis-a-vis Baghdad.
These include Arab states, as evidenced by the fact that the UAE reopened its Baghdad embassy in April, Abdelghani writes.
Jordan as well has been working quietly to expand cooperation with Iraq -- especially following Iraqi Vice-President Taha Yassin Ramadan's recent visit to Amman -- including the resumption of civilian flights to Baghdad. Jordanian sources have told the press that Amman has asked the UN sanctions committee to approve the resumption of flights. Although the U.S. objected, the Jordanian sources did not rule out an American change of heart in the not too distant future, especially if the Arabs collectively demand an end to the air ban on the grounds that it is illegal and has no basis in UN resolutions.
Syria too is likely to bolster links with Iraq under its new president, Bashshar Assad, bearing in mind that bilateral ties had started to improve in the days of Bashshar's father, the late president Hafez Assad.
Abdelghani cautions that lifting the sanctions will be no easy matter but will require big efforts and daring moves by the countries which want to see an end to the suffering they are causing to the Iraqi people. The United States still opposes the lifting of sanctions, even though this is what many U.S. firms and other sides are demanding, Britain toes the U.S. line, and Israel -- "out of hostility to the Arabs, of course" -- also wants the embargo maintained.
Yet, the chances of the sanctions coming to an end are greater than the chances of their remaining in force for much longer, Abdelghani says.
SYRIA: Syria's latest move to bolster links with Iraq was announced on Sunday during a visit by Iraqi Trade Minister Mohammad Mehdi Saleh to Damascus, where he co-chaired the first meeting of a joint economic commission in 20 years.
The official Syrian news agency SANA announced that the two sides had agreed to reactivate a rail link between the Syrian city of Aleppo and the Iraqi city of Mosul which has been inactive since 1981, i.e. one year after they broke diplomatic ties. The railway, which will boost the movement of Syrian and other goods to Iraq, will be reactivated on August 11, it said.
Saleh discussed ways of enhancing bilateral ties with several Syrian officials, including Prime Minister Mohammad Mustafa Miro and Foreign Minister Farouk ash-Sharaa, during his stay in Damascus. The two countries have been gradually reviving ties over the past three years, and Iraq opened an interests section in Damascus last March.
U.S.-SADDAM CONVERGENCE: Abdelwahhab Badrakhan, writing Monday in the Saudi -owned pan-Arab daily al-Hayat, says that while there is nothing extraordinary about Saddam Hussein's regime giving its survival in power precedence over all else, one would have expected the United States not to treat Iraq and its people in the same way that Saddam does.
Marking the 10th anniversary of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the Americans and Iraqis competed in issuing verdicts about what happened, with each side purporting to show that it was right, Badrakhan remarks.
Washington has a stronger case when it speaks of the invasion and occupation, but its case weakens when it comes to what happened after the emirate was liberated. As to the Baghdad regime, it continues to brand as "the mother of battles" what should more accurately be named "the mother of defeats" -- not just for Iraq but for all the Arabs.
At long last, Qusai Saddam Hussein broke his silence, addressing a message to his father in which he described the invasion of Kuwait as "a historic achievement." Qusai, Saddam's presumed -- indeed declared -- heir, has left no doubt about the follies that go on in his mind. If the young successor "takes pride" in the invasion of Kuwait, one wonders why he bothered to open his mouth since he had nothing new to add to what Baghdad had said before.
Washington, on the other hand, maintains that it has been doing the right thing since the liberation of Kuwait in February 1991, and continues to see "containment" as the theme of its success. It does not dare admit that it has stuck to a policy that has failed to convince even its friends simply because it is short of ideas.
As a matter of fact, the interests and arrangements which the U.S. has been able to secure as a result of the embargo on Iraq enable Washington to be proud of what it achieved. But this applies to the U.S. alone: although Washington has invariably declared that it and its friends in Iraq's neighborhood are waging the same battle, it has been clear all along that each of the two sides has its own objectives. In terms of objectives, the U.S. and those friends parted ways the moment Kuwait was liberated and Saddam was allowed to crush the uprisings in the north and south of Iraq.
Washington's friends, including Iraqi dissidents, probably became increasingly convinced as the years went by that the U.S. administration's undeclared goal is to keep Saddam in power, and consequently to use him and his regime to promote purely American interests. Hence the American and Iraqi logics (if one can speak of an Iraqi "logic") converge on keeping the regime in power. The Baghdad regime deems its survival in power to be a "victory" which it devotes all its resources to bolster. As to the Americans, they know that the whole world consider the regime's survival to mean that the Gulf war did not end. Indeed, they hint and even admit openly that they did not want it to end, or at least were unable to end it, and that they might as well take advantage of the present situation and its ramifications.
Baghdad's arguments do not need, and certainly do not deserve, to be explained and/or analyzed, says Badrakhan. They do not express a policy, but rather a desire to vituperate and annoy.
Those who expected Baghdad to seize the opportunity of the 10th anniversary of the invasion to review its policy, or at least begin to review it, were in for yet another disappointment. Saddam could find none other than Qusai as a channel to speak to his people and neighbors -- proof that he is totally bankrupt. Saddam is not only short of ideas; what he lacks in particular is a vision of the future. So he suffices with remaining in power without knowing why and whether he is doing so only to prove that he was "right" when he invaded an Arab neighbor and inflicted immense damage on its people and all the Arabs.
The conclusion that can be drawn from the past 10 years is that Baghdad is notifying Washington that it has managed to turn the sanctions regime to its advantage, and Washington can also claim to have turned the sanctions to its advantage -- although it will not be able to convince Iraq's neighbors that the sanctions were in their interest too. Another conclusion is that the whole world says that the sanctions are a crime against the Iraqi people but Washington argues that all that could be done for the Iraqi people has been done but the Baghdad regime appropriates all the "benefits" allocated to the people.
As if this was surprising, Badrakhan writes. No one expected the Baghdad regime to do anything other than seek to survive in power; but one would have expected Washington to look at Iraq and its people in a way different to Saddam's.
SCENARIOS: Bahraini commentator Omran Salman says the 10th anniversary of the invasion should have been used to help the Iraqi people get rid of sanctions instead of inundating Arab readers with possible "scenarios" of a regime change in Baghdad.
It is as if the change of regime is the main issue while the sanctions victimizing more than 20 million Iraqis are merely incidental, he writes Monday in Akhbar al-Khaleej.
It is noteworthy that all the "scenarios" that have been mentioned ruled out change brought about from outside, pinning hopes instead on an internal military coup, or even a palace coup.
Although politics always springs surprises, it is worth examining developments in the Arab world over the past few decades, Salman says.
This would lead to the conclusion that military coups are no longer an option. The last such coup was that staged by President Omar al-Bashir in Sudan in 1989, a situation which is in stark contrast with that which prevailed after many Arab states gained independence.
In those post-independence years, Arab rulers belonged to either political groups or military organizations, or were merely public figures. It was thus relatively easy to topple them via rival political or military groups given the abundance of arms and the transient alliances that were forged between various social and religious groups.
But this changed after particular families or sects seized power, Salman notes. Key state military and civilian posts became concentrated in the hands of a homogeneous group of people belonging to the same family or sect whose survival often depends on their remaining united. For such a group to be ousted from office, there must be an equally closely-knit and powerful rival group belonging to a same family or sect.
Anyone who watched how the Syrian people, for example, poured out into the streets after Hafez Assad's death and Bashshar's accession to power must have realized that Arab regimes now enjoy a stability for which they could be envied, even if some political analysts believe otherwise.
Even those who have made a habit of coming up with scenarios at each political turn build them on conventional assumptions which, while occasionally solid and serious, most often reflect the wishful thinking of those who envisage those scenarios rather than an objective reading of facts.
But they should be excused anyway, for what is happening in some Arab countries defies all expectations and is sometimes devoid of any logic or meaning.
"Going back to Iraq," Salman writes, "I would personally have preferred the anniversary (of the invasion) to have been used entirely to help the Iraqi people get rid of the sanctions imposed on them. These sanctions are the main -- if not sole -- remaining evidence of this crisis and has left traces in the souls, and on the bodies, of the Iraqi people, traces which it may not be possible to erase soon.
"But what can one do? Instead of this, Arab readers were flooded with scenarios of change, as if the change was going to happen tomorrow, and as if Iraq is the regime and the regime is (Saddam) -- which is what American policy and the accompanying daily propaganda in the East and West have been feeding us."
Copyright 2000 Mideast Mirror