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Feb 2002 Journal

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The fief of Baghdad (editorial)

When the allegedly unwinnable war in Afghanistan was entering its final sanguinary stage, two BBC panellists (one Labour, one Tory) were asked about the advisability of extending military action to Iraq. Both returned an emphatic 'No!' This drew loud applause from the audience, since proclaiming pacific intent provides easy access to the moral high ground, while hard-nosed belligerence jars modern sensibilities.

Would that things were so simple - particularly in the Middle East. The cradle of monotheism and of the Messianic hope for peace has, without doubt, been the most unstable region of the entire post-war world. Contrary to popular belief, the chronic instability is not primarily caused by its proximity to vast oil reserves. This contention is borne out by the fact that dirt-poor - in terms of oil revenues - Lebanon finds itself in the same politically parlous state as the oil-rich Saudis. Nor can the injection of alien Israel into the heart of the Arab/Muslim land mass be held remotely responsible for such endemic regional catastrophes as the Gulf War, the Iran-Iraq War, the long running Pakistan-India conflict, Syria's bloodbath at Homs, the Lebanese, Sudanese and Algerian civil wars, and the unresolved Kurdish question - not to mention warlordism in Somalia and Afghanistan.

In such a lethally volatile region the presence of megalomaniac dictators - Nasser, Assad, Saddam Hussein - inevitably ignites bloody conflicts. Saddam's continued control over Iraq - for all that the Allies clipped his wings in the Gulf War - puts one in mind of a time bomb awaiting its final detonation. He is a programmed killer who, since wiping out entire Kurdish villages with mustard gas in 1988, has assiduously built up an entire arsenal of toxic chemical weapons.

The arguments against extending the War on Terror to the Iraqi dictator usually boil down to two logic-defying interrogatives: 'How can yesterday's friend be today's enemy?' and 'After Iraq, where do you draw the line?'

The peaceniks who pose the first question cite Western arms supplies to Saddam in the Iran-Iraq war, and CIA support for Islamists fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan as examples of Machiavellian duplicity. Would they, one wonders, have queried Churchill's pact with Stalin in 1941 on the grounds that he had, two decades earlier, led the War of Intervention against the Bolsheviks?

A democracy facing a major totalitarian threat is fully entitled to undermine its adversary by bringing forces hostile to the latter - even if they are anti-democratic - into play. When the West supplied arms to Iraq in its war with Iran, the threat Ayatollah Khomeini's Islamic Revolution posed to the stability of the entire region was sufficiently dire to justify this. By the same token, the absorption of Afghanistan into the Russian sphere of influence validated US support for Afghan Islamists on the grounds that on a global scale nuclear-armed Soviet power posed a greater threat than fundamentalism.

The question of whether Iraq will be followed by Sudan, Syria, Yemen, Somalia etc. as targets of Allied anti-terrorist action can be answered briefly. Saddam's removal from power would send such a powerful signal, and cause the petty dictators and warlords infesting those countries so radically to mend their murderous ways, that no further action might be required.

A change of regime in Baghdad would also remove a major obstacle to Israeli-Palestinian peace. If a majority of Israelis currently oppose the creation of a sovereign Palestinian state it is fully understandable in the light of Arafat's duplicitous conduct. Such recalcitrance is rooted in the suspicion that the Palestinian leaders view any Israeli acceptance of their statehood as merely a stepping stone towards the total destruction of Israel. Palestinian rejectionism has always relied on the backing of the hardline Arab states - Syria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. If the Iraqi keystone of the arch of rejectionism were removed, Israelis might be persuaded to make a leap of faith and accept a Palestinian state living cheek-to-jowl with their own.

On the other hand, allowing Saddam to stay in power would leave the outcome of the War on Terror as inconclusive as the end of the Gulf War. A decade on, can the son, benefiting from the father's experience, conclude his unfinished business?

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