|from Open Democracy's security columnist
War by February
Bearing in mind the balance of interests over weapons of mass destruction and oil, there are three questions advocates of war must answer. (mid-length)
Saddam Hussein's acceptance of United Nations (UN) weapons inspection and the US reaction to the offer tell us much of the attitudes of both sides and also indicate that war is still probable within four months.
There is a basic Iraqi belief in the utility of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in helping to ensure the survival of the regime. It is regime survival that is at the root of Baghdad's posture, and it is still believed that the availability of chemical and biological weapons was a key factor in deterring coalition forces from attacking Baghdad in March 1991.
It follows that the regime will do all it can to ensure the survival of the key components of its biological and chemical weapons capability, even if much of it is uncovered by inspectors from the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) in the next few months. The Baghdad policy is currently all about putting off any substantial US attacks on the regime for six months. If the Americans can be delayed until the spring, they will have to wait a further six months for cooler weather, delaying a war until the autumn. By then, the next Presidential election campaign will already be under way and fighting an unpredictable war in the Middle East will be rather too dangerous for George W. Bush's re-election team to contemplate.
Therefore, we should expect apparent Iraqi compliance with UNMOVIC over the next few months, with interference only developing on a substantial scale when UNMOVIC really begins to get close to the more carefully hidden parts of the Iraqi WMD programme. With luck, from the Iraqi perspective, this can be delayed until comfortably into the New Year.
On the American side, recourse to the UN has been an awkward but necessary move, prompted partly by some of the more cautious senior Republicans such as Brent Scowcroft and James Baker, and possibly also the influence of Tony Blair. The results initially looked helpful, but the Iraqi move does complicate things. What is much more significant, though, is the enduring determination of the administration to destroy the Iraqi regime.
This is still the bottom line, whatever the UN developments, and preparations are still being accelerated towards an assault on the regime within three to four months. The primary motive remains, as ever, the fundamental view that the United States must not be limited in its freedom to act in its security interests in what is the most geopolitically important region in the world. A "rogue state" in the Persian Gulf that could deter the US in any shape or form is, quite bluntly, not acceptable. Such a situation must be pre-empted, and this must be done within the next six months for the same reasons of climate, logistics and political campaigning that the Iraqis have calculated.
The oil motive
There is an important additional motive, which relates more directly to oil. After all, the US has used up its own reserves at such a rate that it now imports nearly two-thirds of all it needs, and Iraq is immensely oil-rich, with current reserves almost four times the size of the entire US stocks, even including oil-rich Alaska.
An article in the Washington Post on Sunday 15 September seemed to support this apparently cynical view, reporting the interest in the US oil industry in "opening up" Iraq's oil to US companies after the termination of the Saddam Hussein regime. Such a change would have both commercial and strategic implications. In commercial terms, it would mean that US oil companies would have a head start in exploiting and selling oil from a country second only to Saudi Arabia in its potential oil wealth.
Strategically, opening up Iraqi oil as a source of US imports, controlled by US companies, would go a long way to reducing US dependence on such unpredictable countries as Venezuela and Saudi Arabia. Moreover, it would mean that there would no longer be any necessity for negotiating long-term supply deals with Russia. There has recently been intensive activity over such planned deals" but it is recognised that, while they would be useful to the US, they would also provide billions of dollars to help re-build the Russian economy, thereby strengthening a potential future rival.
The Washington Post piece, though not immediately attracting much attention, may eventually become seminal to the developing controversy over the probable war.
Given the likely imminence of an assault, three core issues have to be addressed by those advocating the termination of the Saddam Hussein regime by military force: casualties, nuclear escalation and what happens afterwards.
The first issue is the cost of civilian as well as military casualties. Most of the Iraqi forces are weak, some might not fight and some might even rebel against the regime. At the same time, there is a core element made up of the Special Republican Guard, the intelligence and security organisations and other units, that amounts to up to 100,000 well-armed troops. The expectation is that they will seek to take on the US troops in Baghdad itself.
In the 1991 war, Iraqi forces were destroyed in the desert, but greater Baghdad is a sprawling metropolis of over five million people, and urban warfare is a devastating prospect. In 1982, a lightly-armed Palestinian militia force of barely 7,000 held off a much larger and massively equipped Israeli army laying siege to West Beirut. The systematic destruction of much of the city by Israeli artillery and aircraft was so substantial that it resulted in an international outcry, but not before 10,000 people had died, most of them civilians.
Not much more than a decade later, the Russians found it so difficult to defeat Chechen rebels in Grozny that they caused far greater destruction and loss of life. While it is virtually impossible to predict casualties in a war fought in Baghdad, recent and credible reports from Washington suggest that an urban war in Baghdad could result in the deaths of 20,000 Iraqis, 10,000 of them civilians. War on Iraq might kill three times as many innocent people as died on 11 September.
The nature of the US air attacks would also ensure that almost all the civil infrastructure of the country would be destroyed, including power supplies, the transport system, sewage treatment and provision of safe drinking water. Based on the experience of the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War, as reported by UNICEF and other agencies, the subsequent loss of life among civilians as a result of the collapse of essential services might be as high as, if not higher than, those caused directly by the war itself.
The nuclear question
The second issue is whether the Iraqis would use chemical and biological weapons. It is now known that they were ready to use them in 1991 if the coalition forces actually tried to destroy the regime itself" indeed they had missiles already loaded with anthrax and ready to fire (see an earlier article). No one really knows what they have available now, but the Saddam Hussein regime has been absolutely ruthless in its determination to survive, and it really must be assumed that any attempt to destroy it will mean that it will use every weapon available, including nerve gas and anthrax.
If that happens, and it should be considered probable, the Iraqis might well succeed in killing many US troops or civilians in Kuwait. In those circumstances, would the US retaliate with nuclear weapons? It is an uncomfortable question but it needs to be answered now. And not just by America. Britain might well have substantial forces involved, and the same question must be asked of the UK government, bearing in mind Geoff Hoon's comments earlier this year to the Defence Select Committee in relation to a state such as Iraq (see an earlier article):
"They can be absolutely confident that in the right conditions we would be willing to use our nuclear weapons."
What are "the right conditions"? Would many hundreds of deaths among British troops in an anthrax or VX nerve gas attack be the occasion for the first use of nuclear weapons since Nagasaki?
Finally, what of the consequences of destroying the regime and seeking to replace it with a client regime acceptable to Washington? A manifestly pro-American client sustained by US forces would be grist to the mills of paramilitary organisations in the region such as al-Qaida, which has long claimed that Washington is only interested in controlling the Gulf oil reserves. What might seem a real short-term victory could quite rapidly become deeply counter-productive. Much worse, of course, would be a war that had killed thousands of civilians and wrecked what remained of the Iraqi economy.
Even the early collapse of the Iraqi regime, with few people killed, could still result in a client regime in Baghdad. In parallel with the Sharon government in Israel" widely seen across the region as nothing more than a front for Washington determined to control Palestinian aspirations with rigorous force" the possibility of a further round of opposition and hostilities cannot be ruled out.
These are all difficult questions with no easy answers. All are likely to be raised with increasing intensity in the coming weeks. They are among the reasons why controversy over the coming war could yet reach a degree of division and bitterness that America has not seen since Vietnam and Britain has not witnessed since its invasion of Suez nearly fifty years ago.