Iraq: a way out?

Scilla Elworthy
29 January 2003

Modern Iraq is still just barely discernable as ancient Mesopotamia. You can see the tablets on which Hammurabi inscribed the first code of laws nearly 4000 years ago, you can visit the Ishtar gate into Babylon, you can climb the Ziggurat which held the seven hanging gardens. You can gasp at the beauty of Queen Shebad, who reigned there many hundreds of years before Christ, and whose cool looks could put her on the cover of Vogue today.

Yet tomorrow, all this could literally be bombed back to the stone age. Saddam Hussein says that if the US and the UK invade, Iraqis will fight to the last man. Whether or not he is right, we know that Hussein himself is a high risk-taker, a man who if cornered will hardly hesitate to use the weapons we insist that he has.

The most likely place he will send them is Israel, as he did in 1991. Then Israel was dissuaded by the US from retaliating. This time a more lethal leadership may not be prevented from sending at least one of Israel’s 200 nuclear weapons to Baghdad. Each warhead is almost certainly a boosted fission weapon with an explosive yield of 40 kilotons, three times as powerful as the bomb which destroyed Hiroshima.

That is why I was in Baghdad (see an earlier article) ten days ago. I have spent the past 20 years talking and listening to scientists who design nuclear warheads, to military who strategise with them, to officials who commission them, to contractors who make money out of them, and to politicians who have the unenviable responsibility of a finger on the button. I did this because I wanted to understand not only how the whole system works - in Moscow and Beijing, as well as in London, Paris, Washington, New Delhi, Islamabad and Tel Aviv – but also to understand the thinking of those who make decisions on nuclear weapons.

My motive - to help find ways out of the nuclear arms race and establish with the help of Quaker funds, an organisation to host quiet behind the scenes high level meetings between these policy-makers and their critics to try to overcome the obstacles to disarmament.

Thus when I went to Baghdad and talked with the deputy prime minister, the foreign minister and the oil minister, I went as an experienced specialist not a gullible westerner. I questioned them hard, and I picked up from them, and from subsequent conversations in London and Washington, a few threads which could I believe lead to a way out of the current crisis without the enormous risks inherent in an attack.

Peaceing together the jigsaw

The current crisis requires lateral thinking to enable the best possible win-win situation to be achieved, and to avoid the potentially catastrophic risks inherent in military intervention.

A useful way in would be to examine the situation from the perspective of the interests of the key protagonists, rather than their positions. Even more importantly, if we can uncover the needs that underlie those interests and develop a way forward that addresses those needs, we stand a chance of coming up a lasting solution. So here follows an estimate of those interests and needs.

  • President Bush wants to be able to go into the next election with Saddam Hussein removed from power; he needs to ensure domestic support for his foreign policy and to continue to feel powerful and supported by the American people.
  • The US government wants to demonstrate its military power to those who might question or threaten or attack the US; the underlying need is for respect.
  • US oil interests want a compliant government in Iraq, allowing them to pump up to 8 million barrels per day of Iraqi oil to Europe and North America; their need is to be successful and profitable.
  • The Pentagon wants a military victory in order for the US to be able to carry out anti al-Qaida operations without restrictions and to become the defining power in the Middle East and Persian Gulf; the underlying need is for national security, and to continue to have influence.
  • The UK government wants to support the US administration, keep open ties with the rest of Europe and keep the Labour Party united; the need is to act with integrity.
  • The Russians want the oil to flow (to repay debts) as do the French; their need is for prosperity and freedom of action.
  • European states like France, Germany and Italy, as well as countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran, do not want the US to be able to use Iraq as a base to extend control throughout the Arabian peninsula, with inevitable political and economic consequences; they need to feel independent and autonomous.
  • Saddam Hussein wants to survive and hold on to power; his sense of honour needs to be satisfied.
  • The Iraqi people, and there are few professionals or intelligentsia left, want food, medicine, dignity, to stay alive; they need to regain control over their lives.
  • Many of the Iraqi diaspora would like to return, but are rightly afraid to do so; they need security.
  • OPEC members want to continue to negotiate prices for their oil; again, the need is for autonomy.

A possible solution to these needs and interests could lie in some version of the following; while it would not meet all of the needs of all the protagonists, it is a start and can certainly be improved.

Constructing a settlement

Saddam Hussein is being strongly pushed towards ‘retirement’ outside Iraq in one of a number of countries, but is unlikely to accept it. What he might accept would be to retire with his family within Iraq, perhaps to the vacation city 130km north of Baghdad known as Saddamiat Al-Tharthar, into which he has poured money and care. This option would require adequate policing and security guarantees, possibly to be provided by the UN. Some form of indictments would be put in place to detain members of the current Iraqi regime guilty of human rights violations. Saddam himself would know that if he left his refuge or manipulated politics in Baghdad he would immediately be arrested and tried for war crimes.

Saddam Hussein’s ‘retirement’ would make room for an interim government – possibly a UN protectorate or trusteeship that would build on the civil rights reforms the Iraqis say they have already begun, namely to introduce a multi-party system and continue to abolish the laws restricting civil and political rights. [The Iraqi government has already reduced exit visa fees from $200 to $10, has abolished the ‘special courts’ on security violations, and has given amnesty to political prisoners. There are therefore foundations to build on.]

Under this arrangement sanctions and the oil-for-food programme would be removed, enabling ordinary Iraqis to get enough to eat and build up their infrastructure, especially medical services. The Iraqi diaspora, consisting of hundreds of thousands of professionals, could return to Iraq with guarantees for their safety, possibly provided by an agreement whereby any violations of their security would entail the arrest of Saddam and the immediate sequestering of oil revenues.

Commercial arrangements for the extraction and export of Iraqi oil would return to an open tender and bidding basis when an elected government was in place. In the meantime, negotiations with oil companies would be overseen by the UN, in an extension of present arrangements and including joint ventures with the Iraqi National Oil Company. OPEC could continue.

Such an agreement would not include the establishment of US military bases in Iraq, but it would offer increased security for the people of the United States, in terms of respect rather than increased hatred from the Muslim world. It would imply the final dismantling of any remaining chemical or biological weapons in Iraq, a residual UN inspection force, and a UN resolution making clear that any return to the development or deployment of weapons of mass destruction was prohibited and that this prohibition would be enforced. This could be the prelude to negotiations for the establishment of a Middle Eastern zone free of weapons of mass destruction.

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