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Thursday, 29 November, 2001, 02:35 GMT
Analysis: Is Iraq next?
Market in Baghdad
Attacking Iraq would prove highly controversial
Roger Hardy

The drum beats are getting louder.

Commentators in Washington are saying that once victory is achieved against Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaeda, the next target should be the Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

President George Bush's blunt warning to the Iraqi leader on Monday seemed to underline the message: Iraq must allow the return of the UN weapons inspectors, or suffer the consequences.

But the bombing of Iraq is unlikely, at least for now.

The Bush administration's current slogan is "first things first". It has its hands full in Afghanistan.

Iraqi oil plant
Baghdad is currently allowed to exchange oil for humanitarian goods

And while the Taleban forces have collapsed in the north, they have not yet been defeated in their southern heartland.

Bombing Iraq would break apart the international coalition the administration has painstakingly put together.

It would also jeopardise its recently-launched initiative to revive the Arab-Israeli peace process.

For the moment, US foreign policy is firmly in the hands of the pragmatic Secretary of State, Colin Powell. And all the signs are that he opposes military action against Iraq at this point.

Deadline on Friday

This does not mean Iraq is off the agenda. It means no clear strategy has yet been worked out.

In the short term, the administration has had to deal with an inconvenient deadline.

At midnight on Friday, the current phase of the UN's "oil-for-food" programme for Iraq expires. Under the scheme, Iraq is allowed to sell oil in order to buy food and medicine.

Iraq woman carrying a sack of wheat
The sanctions still mean hardship for many civilians

The programme is designed to alleviate the suffering of Iraqi civilians as a result of 11 years of harsh economic sanctions, imposed by the UN after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990.

It hasn't worked. Sanctions continue to punish innocent civilians, while arguably strengthening, rather than weakening, the Saddam Hussein regime.

They give Saddam a propaganda weapon he has not failed to exploit.

And after 11 years, sanctions fatigue has set in; most of the world has grown tired of them.

Smart sanctions

In June the Americans and the British tried to replace the existing sanctions with new, "smart" sanctions. These would open up Iraq to civilian imports but tighten restrictions on military items, while also cracking down on the smuggling of Iraqi oil.

Iraq strenuously objected to this change, and secured the crucial support of Russia.

Eager to develop lucrative economic ties with Baghdad, the Russians want sanctions lifted altogether. Using the threat of their veto in the UN Security Council, they successfully blocked the introduction of smart sanctions.

An Iraqi works in a wheat field
Russia drops its opposition to smart sanctions

Now, in an apparently significant change of heart, the Russians have agreed to an American proposal which could pave the way for the introduction of smart sanctions in six months' time, at the end of May.

In return, the Americans have agreed to a long-standing Russian demand for what's being called a "comprehensive settlement" of the sanctions issue.

That means there will be clarification of the steps required before sanctions are lifted altogether.

Iraq remains defiant

American and British officials have long argued there is no mystery about what those steps should be: If Iraq allows UN weapons inspectors to return, and co-operates with them in the task of ridding the country of weapons of mass destruction, sanctions will be progressively lifted.

Iraq's current position is to reject demands for the return of the inspectors, arguing it no longer has any illicit weapons.

In the coming months, the Bush administration will have to choose between a unilateral and a multilateral approach to the Iraq problem.

US Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz
One of the hawks in the Bush administration: Paul Wolfowitz

The hawks, led by Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, argue that America must act swiftly and decisively, and if that means acting alone then so be it.

The hawks make no secret of their desire to overthrow Saddam Hussein as the only way of making Iraq safe. Their problem is that there is no easy way of bringing this about.

Previous coup attempts have failed. Iraqi opposition groups are weak and divided.

Joint effort

Sending in US ground troops would be a high-risk strategy provoking significant unease at home and abroad.

The multilateral approach would be to move in stages, securing the maximum support from allies at each stage.

A concerted effort would be made to persuade Iraq to accept a new weapons inspection regime. If it continued to say no, the Americans would be able to describe military action as a last resort.

Action on Iraq is not imminent, but it will not be delayed for very long.

See also:

26 Nov 01 | Americas
Bush warns Iraq over UN inspectors
07 Nov 01 | Middle East
Iraq 'smart sanctions' postponed
03 Jul 01 | Middle East
Iraq escapes 'smart sanctions'
26 Jun 01 | Middle East
Russia resists new Iraq sanctions
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