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Friday, 21 February, 2003, 13:24 GMT
Iraq Day: You asked the experts

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    The BBC's "Iraq: Britain Decides" day is featuring a range of programmes and events to reflect views and opinions on the possible war with Iraq.

    Hundreds of British soldiers are guarding Heathrow Airport and a number of other sites in London.

    Metropolitan Police commissioner Sir John Stevens said the decision to bring in the military had been taken in response to intelligence reports, but urged the public to be alert, not panic.

    As security is increased in the UK, intensive consultations are under way between the member of governments of Nato to try and resolve a damaging dispute over when to start military preparations for a possible war against Iraq.

    The US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, says a new message - allegedly from Osama Bin Laden - is proof of a link between the al-Qaeda network and the Iraqi Government.

    Do you think the Middle East could be destablized by a possible war in Iraq?

    What would evidence would prove to you that there is a connection between Bin Laden and Iraq?

    You put your questions to Daniel Neep the head of the Middle East programme at the Royal United Services Institute, UK security expert Charles Shoebridge and Dr Azzam Tamimi from the Muslim Association of Britain.


  • Transcript:

    Newshost:
    Hello and welcome to this BBC News interactive forum. Today this programme is part of a BBC special Iraq - Britain Decides. Joining us to take your questions on the issue Daniel Neep, head of the Middle East programme at the Royal United Services Institute, thanks for joining us. Charles Shoebridge, a former anti-terrorist officer of Scotland Yard. And here Dr Assam Tamimi, he's from the Muslim Association of Britain and is a co-sponsor of this weekend's Stop the War peace march.

    Now we've had many e-mails, hundreds of e-mails indeed, some from online viewers, some from digital satellite television viewers. And I'm going to get straight to them right away without ado.

    Let's get straight to Raymond Lane from London, he wants to know: "What's the American administration's main motive for war against Iraq - protecting American oil supplies, protecting Israel, the elimination of Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction?" And I'm going to put that to Daniel.

    Daniel Neep:
    I think there's been a lot of speculation about what really is going on here - is it about oil? I don't think it is just about oil, if it were that simple there are simpler ways to increase oil supplies than invading Iraq - you could lift the sanctions on Libya and Iran for a start. It's about protecting Israel - I think Israel's probably more threatened by a campaign in Iraq.

    I think we have to go back to genuine concern about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, the failure of the Western policy towards Iraq over the last 10 years and the decreased tolerance we have for insecurity in the wake of 9/11 - I think it goes back to those fundamental issues.

    Newshost:
    Dr Tamimi, do you go along with this or do you suspect that this is all about oil?

    Azzam Tamimi:
    I think it's mostly about oil and it's about the United States of America under Bush wanting to impose its hegemony over the world. And I think Israel has something to do with this because Israel and the Zionist lobby which supports Israel in the United States of America are supporters and agitators of this war against Iraq. We feel that there's a likelihood that Israel may exploit the war, once the war erupts, in order to get rid of many Palestinians in order to change things on the ground.

    Newshost:
    Okay, two questions here. One from Rupert Mallin from Lowestoft: "Why are Germany and France so opposed to war in Iraq?" And the other from Andre Dumoulin from Panama: "Why has this created such a deep crisis between Europe and the US?" I'll put that to Daniel.

    Daniel Neep:
    I think the longer this crisis with Iraq goes on the less about Iraq it becomes. It's becoming increasingly about the United States and how people view America's policy in the world. I think that's what's happened more recently with France and Germany. The French have always been very keen to establish their own independent foreign policy and to be seen to have a complete autonomous line.

    I think what's happened now, in the last week, is that the potential differences with the US are being exploited in order to try and create this European defence identity, which hasn't been forthcoming up until now.

    Newshost:
    Can I interrupt there though because this e-mail, just in here, from Terry in Solihull in the West Midlands: "Can we afford to leave France and Germany out of our proposed actions?"

    Daniel Neep:
    Well to reverse it - can France and Germany afford not to play a role in what's going to happen? I think a lot obviously hinges upon the Blix report on Friday and I think that could do something to heal the rupture that's emerged.

    I think it would be very difficult - it would be disastrous for the US to go in completely unilaterally and that we do require some kind of international coalition. I sincerely hope that this rupture can be bridged.

    Newshost:
    Okay a question here for Dr Tamami, this is from Thandi Mwape, he's a Zambian living in Kosovo. "Are you concerned that the humanitarian impact of war on Iraq is totally being ignored in this debate?"

    Azzam Tamimi:
    From the sight of those who want to go to war, definitely there is a total disregard for the hundreds of thousands that are likely to be killed. Not only that - the pollution to the environment, to the water, to the whole region, the destabilisation of the region as a whole - I think these repercussions are not being considered sufficiently.

    Newshost:
    What do you say to that Daniel?

    Daniel Neep:
    I would agree there is a certain amount of planning that needs to be done in order to prepare for the eventuality that there is some kind of military action. I don't think that the undoubted repercussions - humanitarian, infrastructure, economic - should outweigh the deaths that have occurred over the last 10 years and the sanctions that have taken place under the regime of Saddam Hussein himself.

    Newshost:
    Okay, let's just bring Charles Shoebridge in now. Now obviously you've got a lot of experience with the security aspects of the situation here in the UK. A question here from Andrew in the UK: "I've heard people complain this morning that troops at Heathrow is a step too far." I'm emphasising here that this is an alert that's been devised by the Government in relation to information which they can't give any details of exactly but he wants to know how do people know this?

    Charles Shoebridge:
    Well it's a very good question, it's one that's very difficult to answer. I think over the last four to five weeks we've seen very much a blurring of the line - the boundary if you like - between what is marketed as intelligence and what is also becoming increasingly clear is a certain amount of spin and PR. Where those two issues coalesce, as I think they have done in a number of instances, or they appear to have done so in the last few weeks, it's quite reasonable I think for cynics to actually question what on earth is going on. And in a way, regardless of what the truth of the matter is the Government I feel, in the way it's handled this information, has only got itself to blame.

    I think with the specific instance of the Heathrow operations that's underway at the moment and elsewhere now as well is that we have a general raising of the threat level. There is information specific enough to talk about airports and air security but I don't think there's anything more specific than that, if there was we'd be seeing a very different type of operation, or perhaps not seeing one, in other words a covert operation would have been mounted if there was more specific information.

    Newshost:
    This question from Anthony in the UK, he's referring to the tape, the audio tape, which was aired on Al-Jazeera over the past 24 hours. He's asking: "Is it coincidental that this tape arrives at such a time when both America and the UK have increased home security levels?"

    Charles Shoebridge:
    Well if he's taking a cynical approach one can ...

    Newshost:
    I think he is.

    Charles Shoebridge:
    I think he is too and again it's not surprising, given the way that the information of war, if you like, the media campaign has been handled both in the UK and in the States that people are raising their eyebrows in a way that three or four years ago they would have just accepted this. I think generally speaking that if the Government has said this is what's happened then this is what's happened and clearly that is no longer the case.

    Now I think the Germans have today, through technical analysis, actually verified that the tape is indeed Bin Laden's voice pattern. Whether it's coincidence or whether it's manipulation that it's been released today and of course we saw very clearly that Colin Powell was referring to this tape actually before it was even broadcast on Al-Jazeera yesterday, it's difficult to say what the situation is.

    Newshost:
    Now obviously these conspiracy theories abound in this situation but what do you say, Daniel, do you think that this possibly could be a spin, just to sort of prepare people for what's ahead?

    Daniel Neep:
    There might be an element of that and I think we're right in saying there's more public suspicion of what government is saying.

    The dossier which the UK Government released earlier last week was a complete ridiculous move for the Government to make, they shot themselves in the foot by releasing something very quickly that hadn't been prepared properly, they did a lot to undermine the credibility of the believable evidence that they've already released. So I think there's perhaps an element of spin there and I think people's suspicions have been increased unnecessarily.

    Newshost:
    This question Dr Tamimi from Shahid who's from the UK, he's saying: "Isn't linking the current terrorist threat with Eid pretty offensive? If these guys had done their homework from an Islamic point of view the Hajj season is supposed to be of ceasefires?"

    Azzam Tamimi:
    Yes, indeed. Yesterday's announcement that the beefing up of security had something to do with the Hajj season was insulting to the Muslims, it was very insensitive of the authorities to say so. Pilgrims come back from Mecca carrying dates, Zam Zam water and things of this sort - souvenirs - not machine guns and rifles and all this stuff. So that shouldn't have been said, it's like associating Christmas or Easter with a terrorist attack or something.

    Newshost:
    Do you agree with this Daniel?

    Daniel Neep:
    Very much so. I think the people who should really be having increased security concerns at this point are the Saudis, rather than the UK. They're the ones who have the thousands of Muslims pouring into the country and in the UK perhaps it's a misjudgement to association the two.

    Newshost:
    Let me put this question to you which is just in from Mark in London. "It's fine for France and Germany opting for a peaceful solution as long as if there is evidence that Iraq is a threat to the West they fall in line. It makes me wonder whether the USA's evidence really is that convincing."

    Daniel Neep:
    I think the evidence is convincing and quite what you do on the back of that evidence is something else and that's what they seem to have doubts about at the moment.

    I think there was an international consensus on 1441 which put the inspectors back into Iraq, which gave Baghdad one more opportunity to comply with the demands of the international community. I think it looks like, from what Powell was saying and what I think Blix will say on Friday, it looks like there is no way that anyone could say Iraq is complying with 1441.

    Newshost:
    Well let's bring Charles Shoebridge in on this because what do you say to the much concern from many quarters about the quality of this evidence that the USA and indeed the UK have put forward?

    Charles Shoebridge:
    I think it goes back to the point that I made earlier and I think we agree on this. Where there has been good solid evidence mixed with a PR spin for propaganda purposes it has undermined the whole totality of the information that's given over. And consequently people are dubious about information that actually constitutes quite good evidence.

    An awful lot - and I particularly refer here to not so much the weapons of mass destruction, where I think there is probably more of a clear cut case that something is going on in Iraq and something is being hidden - but when that is mixed with clear apparent evidence, presented by Colin Powell, and especially by the British Government, of definite links between, for example, Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda, this is news to intelligence officers and people because it's now well established and it's been said many times, I think it's worth repeating: Saddam Hussein's government and al-Qaeda type organisations are completely opposed to one another.

    We've seen a lot of spin on this issue too, so for example the ricin finds, the poisoned ricin found in North London in the last few weeks, soon all the newspapers, every quickly, had articles about the north Iraqi link whereas of course very few people pointed out that actually this part of northern Iraq is actually not under Saddam Hussein's control and one of the reason's it's not under his control is because of the allied no-fly zone protecting the Kurds in that region. So there's a lot of linkage going on which simply can't be substantiated.

    Newshost:
    Let's bring Dr Tamimi in on this and tie in with a question from David Anderson in the UK, he asks: "Does it worry you that you're now in a position where the US and UK are inventing threats in order to steamroller public opinion through fear and xenophobia? The timing of this and the unconvincing Bin Laden tape is just too perfect to derail the anti-war feelings to be anything other than invention."

    Azzam Tamimi:
    It is very worrying and I think one of the repercussions of this war, if it ever takes place, is that there's bound to be a backlash from the Muslims and against the Muslims in this country and in America. And it's very sad.

    Going back to the tape by Bin Laden I'm not so sure whether it's coincidence or not but what I'm sure about is that the current atmosphere provides Bin Laden and his like with an opportunity. This is an opportunity they're waiting for and actually that means that the real people who are creating potential threats are the British and the American governments who are preparing for war against Iraq, unjustifiably and unjustly, and as a result will pave the way for attacks possibly in Britain or in American again.

    Newshost:
    Right this question, a very pertinent one, from Lance who's from Australia and I'm going to put it to Daniel. "Iraq is a secular state while one of Bin Laden's goals is to see Iraq become a fundamentalist state. Despite his hatred of the US isn't it in his interest to see both these nations go to war?" I mean basically he's making the point that unlike the US point of view which is that there's a tie between al-Qaeda and Iraq, he's making the point that Osama bin Laden it's in his interest to see this war happen.

    Daniel Neep:
    There's a potential that there is for things to go wrong, for there to be this backlash of Muslim opinion, I think in that sense it could very well play to Osama bin Laden's best interests, creating more martyrs for the cause. That would be a worse case scenario.

    A more optimistic assessment would say that if American action is quite swift, relatively successful in a short period of time and doesn't cause too much damage in the country and actually makes a concrete improvement to the lives of Iraqis in the country who have been living under the most appalling conditions, not just since the Gulf War but throughout the Iran/Iraq War as well. If there is this kind of improvement that could potentially restore a lot of faith in the US, which has lost a lot of support in its misguided handling of the peace process I think. I think there is a potential for America to win a little bit more support here if things go well.

    Newshost:
    This from Robert Campbell, Pennsylvania in America. "Aren't Germany and France refusing to fulfil the basic requirements of Nato membership in not defending another member nation from attack?" Daniel on this one.

    Daniel Neep:
    That's certainly what supporters of the US and the more conservative elements of pro-Nato constituency are saying, and certainly this spin has been put in certain quarters.

    The implication being that France and Germany are trying to engineer a rupture in the transatlantic alliance in order to cement this European defence and foreign policy identity which really hasn't happened so far. I think it's dangerous to do so, it's extremely difficult to cut all links with the US, the UK would find it hard but also countries like Spain and Italy which have good ties as well. There is a feeling that certain elements in Paris are manipulating this for their own ends.

    Newshost:
    Okay a question from Greg Murphy from Houston in Texas. "Will the anarchy that ensues after a prolonged bombing campaign increase the risk of weapons of mass destruction finding their way into the wrong hands?" Charles what's your view on that?

    Charles Shoebridge:
    I think that I agree with what you're saying, I think it looks very much like it will be a fairly swift campaign militarily.

    I think the big problem is and I think the problem that really hasn't been properly addressed, or doesn't seem to have been so, is what happens afterwards. And so if you've got a very quick campaign that establishes American military control you've then got the situation you've then got a country that is militarily - a Muslim country moreover - militarily occupied by force of arms by the United States or by its allies, that can only work into al-Qaeda's hands.

    Secondly you've also got the situation where freedom fighters or people who may be now seen as freedom fighters rise up in arms against the States, again it's a recruitment drive for al-Qaeda.

    Thirdly my fear would be that with regards to weapons of mass destruction I think clearly with Iraq you've got a country that has the clear capacity, if it hasn't done so already, to produce weapons of mass destruction. What happens if we get a democracy in Iraq? What happens if something along the same lines as Algeria takes place? Elections occur, we've had American occupation, there is a backlash to that, a fundamentalist regime is voted in which then predicates a military take over - we're back to square one. And I'm not sure all this has been thought out and so I think the issue of invasion will not necessarily solve the problem of weapons of mass destruction.

    Newshost:
    What do you say to that Dr Tamimi?

    Azzam Tamimi:
    Well I think this is not about weapons of mass destruction, this is not about the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. This is about the troubles that George Bush has in his own country - in the economy, in his administration - he has really failed his people, regarding the major issues that America needs to be addressed. And by going to war he's exporting all these problems and hoping that by grabbing Iraqi oil then that will reflect positively on the American economy in the future. But he is totally mistaken. I think Iraq is not Afghanistan, Iraq is going to be a quagmire for America and Britain if they move in.

    Newshost:
    What do you say to this from Mr Gray who comes from Leicester? "I think the anti-war lobby are suffering from the I'm alright Jack attitude, it doesn't seem to matter what atrocities Saddam has committed or will commit if left to his own devices, what do you think should be done about Saddam?"

    Azzam Tamimi:
    Well if this campaign was about ridding Iraq of a dictator I'd be the first to join the campaign but in my opinion this is not the issue. When Saddam Hussein gassed the Kurds, when he attacked Iran, he was supported and supplied by the Western countries - the United States of America and European countries. So the people who want to stop the war now, they want to stop it because they don't want more suffering, they don't want this to end up in killing hundreds of thousands of people in Iraq and also having a backlash in the West between the Muslims and the non-Muslims.

    Newshost:
    Okay this question comes from Ray from Chelmsford: "Will war forge a reluctant alliance between bin Laden and Iraq?"

    Azzam Tamimi:
    It's not an alliance between Saddam Hussein and Bin Laden, it's an opportunity for Bin Laden and whoever has a grievance against America to try if they can to hit American targets, whether in America or outside America. It's an opportunity and by the way this is likely, if this war goes on, Britain will have embroiled itself in anti-Americanism, now people hate America more than anything else in the world. And recently I heard a very authoritative scholar in the Muslim world who was visiting this country, say so far he resisted fatwas, he resisted issuing a fatwa to boycott British products because he said we still have hope that Britain will change its mind because of the British public and their position. But if Britain goes to war he is likely to issue a fatwa that Britain should be boycotted as well.

    Newhost:
    Okay I want to put this other e-mail that's just in from Espen in Oslo to Daniel, it says: "From an anti-war perspective I find that the crisis now has reached a stage when the Security Council approving American intervention is by the far the best solution, as the alternative - US, UK bilateral action - will be far worse for the international political situation." Would you agree with that?

    Daniel Neep: I think I would to the extent that a unilateral US led military action would be disastrous, in terms of its effect on the region and also in terms of its ability to undermine the authority of the United Nations. I think it is preferable immensely to go through the United Nations route but that doesn't mean that America has to do what everybody else wants.

    We saw in 1441 the international communities came together that Iraq has to abide by this resolution or there will be serious consequences, we'd be locked into the UN roots if you will. If countries such as France and Germany decide that Iraq might be in breach but there are no serious consequences where will that lead the UN? The resolution was made, there were consequences that had to be had, otherwise it's just all talk, why are we bothering with the United Nations at all?

    Azzam Tamimi:
    I think the problem here is that the United Nations is being manipulated and I fear that if a resolution is even issued that resolution will be the result of American manipulation and product. Half of the countries, more than half of the countries, who signed that declaration and are joining Britain and America are actually hoping for American aid, so it's who you can buy in this market.

    Daniel Neep:
    The United Nations is not a court of law, it's not the supreme court of international society, it is a body which is driven by real politic, it always has been. So I would agree that there is opportunity for deal making, for buying countries off but other countries as well do quite well out of it. I mean in the wake of the last Gulf War, for example, we saw a lot of the Arab states benefit immensely from their contribution to the US led coalition. The same thing's going to happen this time.

    Newshost:
    Okay time is pressing on. Now Raquib Shamsad from London wants to know: "Under constant American threat can anyone deny Iran, Iraq and North Korea's legitimate right to arm themselves for self-defence?" Gentlemen, brief answers please.

    Daniel Neep:
    I think there's a wider question when looking at the Middle East - North Korea I'll leave aside - but Iran and Iraq both are major countries in the Middle East.

    Iraq, for example, has its own strategic concerns, its own strategic interests. The Iraqi development of weapons of mass destruction was done in the context of a threat from a long war with Iran on the one hand and perceived threat from Israel on the other. Iran was just the same. Israel has developed weapons for very much the same reasons. It's a question of regional security rather than just each individual regime. So I think there is a wider question even after we've dealt with Iraq.

    Newshost:
    Charles do you have a view on this?

    Charles Shoebridge:
    I don't think that Iraq has ever claimed and nor would it be believed that it's attempted to develop weapons of mass destruction to defend itself from the United States. It has embarked on a programme for its own aggrandizement. It sees itself as, or Saddam Hussein would like to see Iraq, as leader of the Arab world, particularly against Israel and I think it's in that context that you need to see the development of these weapons - an aggressive context.

    Newshost:
    Dr Tamimi very quickly.

    Azzam Tamimi:
    Well it seems to me the only way you can protect yourself and deter potential aggressive is that if you have weapons. Those who don't have weapons can easily be stepped upon and this is what America is doing to us all.

    Newshost:
    Dr Azzam Tamimi thank you very much for your contribution, also to Daniel Neep and to Charles Shoebridge. And that's all we have time for I'm afraid. From me Andrew Simmons and the rest of the team here goodbye for now.


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