CULMINATING EIGHT years of frustration with Iraq's obstruction of UN disarmament efforts, on December 16 the United States and Britain unleashed 70 hours of air and missile strikes against weapons- and security-related sites in Iraq. Despite frequent warnings, the strikes surprised many nations and fractured the long-standing but fragile unity of the UN Security Council in dealing with Baghdad. Washington and London have publicly called for the replacement of Saddam Hussein's regime and insist that UN sanctions remain in place until Iraq proves it has disarmed. Conversely, Russia, France and China are urging the Security Council to adopt a new, more conciliatory approach that would lift the sanctions and change the mandate of UN inspectors from investigating Iraq's past weapons activities to a more limited monitoring role.
At the center of UN debate is UN Security Council Resolution 1194, adopted on September 9 in response to Iraq's August 5 suspension of UN weapons inspections. The compromise resolution promised a "comprehensive review" of Iraq's compliance with UN disarmament and other mandates once Baghdad resumed full cooperation with inspectors. (See ACT, August/September 1998.) The determination of whether Iraq was fully cooperating was left to the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM), responsible for the chemical, biological and ballistic missile components of Iraq's UN-mandated disarmament, and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which handles nuclear issues, once they were able to resume their work inside Iraq.
When the Security Council's plan for the comprehensive review did not call for an immediate or automatic lifting of sanctions, Baghdad escalated its confrontation with the United Nations on October 31 by blocking UNSCOM (and, in effect, the IAEA) from conducting monitoring activities. The United States and Britain, which since the showdown with Iraq in February had left the task of gaining Iraq's cooperation up to the Security Council, began preparations for strikes on Iraq.
On November 14, Baghdad's last-minute capitulation and pledge of complete cooperation with UN inspectors staved off a U.S.-British strike. The inspectors returned to work in Iraq four days later. Still charged by the Security Council with assessing whether Iraq was indeed providing the full cooperation required for the comprehensive review to begin, UNSCOM and the IAEA reported back to the Security Council on December 15.
While the IAEA reported that it had received sufficient cooperation to do its work, UNSCOM offered a sharply different assessment. Detailing Iraq's refusal to provide long-requested documents, its unwillingness to offer new information on its biological weapons or VX nerve gas programs, new forms of obstruction and interference and outright blockages of some attempted inspections, UNSCOM Executive Chairman Richard Butler reported that "Iraq did not provide the full cooperation it promised on 14 November."
Operation Desert Fox
Anticipating a negative report, on December 13 Washington and London ordered their forces to execute an attack, dubbed "Operation Desert Fox," on Iraq beginning December 16. Utilizing some 415 air- and sea-launched cruise missiles in addition to 650 aircraft sorties, U.S. and British forces struck over 100 targets, inflicting damage on 85 percent of them.
Publicly, the purpose of the attack was to "degrade" Iraq's weapons of mass destruction capabilities and "diminish" Baghdad's ability to threaten its neighbors. Defense Secretary William Cohen insisted on December 18 that "We are not trying to destabilize [Saddam Hussein's] regime." Yet in his televised address announcing the strikes, President Clinton reiterated the U.S. position that the best way to end the Iraqi threat to the region "once and for all is with a new Iraqi government."
Because the same institutions that protect Iraq's weapons of mass destruction also protect Saddam Hussein's regime, the line between the two was easily blurred. All attacks other than 34 strikes on Iraqi air defenses focused on targets at the nexus of the regime and its proscribed weapons capabilities. As listed by the Defense Department, these targets included: security forces; presidential palaces, TV and radio, command and control; air bases; the Republican Guard; and the Basrah oil refinery.
According to Defense officials, for example, the six targeted air bases hosted not only L-29 pilotless drones, suspected of having been modified to release chemical or biological agents, but also attack helicopters that played a critical role in the suppression of revolts in 1991. Similarly, the estimated $500 million that Baghdad obtains each year from oil smuggling supports the cadres of regime supporters as well as scientists involved in ongoing weapons activities.
Notably absent from the Pentagon's target list were suspected chemical and biological production facilities. Secretary Cohen explained on December 17 that a number of facilities that have "civilian activities on certain floors and inappropriate activities on others" had been avoided to prevent civilian casualties. The Washington Post on December 19 cited Red Cross spokesmen who estimated 30 to 40 people had been killed and about 80 injured in metropolitan Baghdad. During his post-operation review on December 21, General Anthony Zinni, who commanded the strikes, said he was unaware of any civilian targets having been hit by accident.
Reaction to the Air Strikes
News of the first strikes on Iraq came in the middle of the Security Council's meeting to consider the December 15 UNSCOM and IAEA reports. Caught off guard by the U.S.-British attack, Russia and China declared the strikes "illegal." In addition, Moscow recalled its ambassador to Washington for consultations on December 17.
France, while accepting the U.S. and British claim that Baghdad's non-cooperation with UN inspectors was responsible for the strikes, proposed ending the international embargo on Iraq and transforming UNSCOM into a long-term monitoring group—essentially acquiescing in Iraq's retention of some of its proscribed weapons capabilities. French President Jacques Chirac called on December 20 for "fresh organization, fresh methods" to monitor Iraq's weapons development. French Foreign Minister Herbert Vedrine added, "We think its time to move on to a mechanism more geared to the risk of future danger, rather than the systematic examination of what has happened in the past."
Russia and China have long advocated lifting the economic sanctions imposed on Iraq following its 1990 invasion of Kuwait as a means of rewarding Baghdad for past cooperation with UN disarmament efforts, aiding Iraqi civilians, and eliciting further compliance. Moscow and Beijing also called for the ouster of Butler. Soon after the initial U.S.-British attack, news reports citing Russian, Chinese and UN officials appeared alleging that Butler had collaborated in U.S. plans by minimizing problems cited in the December 15 report during meetings with the UN secretary-general and during trips to Moscow and Paris.
Butler denied conspiring with the United States and insisted on December 17 that his report was "based on the experts of UNSCOM. It danced to nobody's tune." Rejecting calls for his removal, Butler said he has no plans to quit.
The United States responded forcefully to calls to remove economic sanctions and reconfigure UNSCOM. Speaking to reporters on December 22, Undersecretary of State Thomas Pickering reiterated the U.S. position that Iraq would face "sanctions in perpetuity" until it allowed UN weapons inspectors to verify the destruction of its proscribed weapons and production capabilities. Pickering also stated, "we believe Mr. Butler has done an outstanding job and we will continue to support him." If Iraq were to "credibly demonstrate its readiness to cooperate" by readmitting the weapons inspectors and providing them with "full cooperation," said Pickering, the Security Council could then proceed with the "comprehensive review."
Washington also appears to be pursuing a second, non-diplomatic track designed to tighten the pressure on the government in Baghdad. At the end of Operation Desert Fox, President Clinton emphasized U.S. readiness to conduct further strikes on Iraq's proscribed weapons capabilities based on information obtained by national technical means.
The administration has also stepped up its support for dissident groups hoping to topple Saddam Hussein and is preparing to name a special envoy to help coordinate their efforts. The final element of the two-track strategy is vigorous maintenance by U.S. and British forces of the "no-fly" and "no-drive" zones covering northern and southern Iraq.
Iraqi officials maintain that UNSCOM's mission ended with the air strikes and that UN weapons inspectors will never be allowed to return to Iraq. Baghdad has also rejected France's proposal to change the inspectors' mandate to one exclusively of monitoring. Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz stated on December 21 that any consideration of monitoring could only proceed once sanctions on Iraq had been lifted.
In the wake of the strikes, attention in the Security Council remains fixed on the subject of regaining Iraq's cooperation in order to proceed with what is now being labeled by the Russians as an "overall assessment" of UN policy toward Iraq. Still at issue, though, is whether such a review would not only address the question of Iraq's compliance and the future of sanctions, but would also consider whether to maintain UNSCOM as a mechanism for verifying Iraq's disarmament.