As U.N. inspectors spent their fourth day visiting alleged Iraqi weapons facilities—Sunday’s site was a former airfield—two incidents showed how much of a political and military minefield Hans Blix and his team are maneuvering through.
On Sunday, Iraq accused U.S. and British aircraft of bombing the offices of the Iraqi Southern Oil company in Basra, killing four and injuring 27. The Washington Post noted that U.S. officials confirmed an attack, but they said the planes had “hit air-defense facilities … in response to Iraqi antiaircraft artillery fire.” The attack came amid a U.N. admission (reported in the Age of Melbourne) that investigators had warned the Iraqis they would be inspecting a former missile-building factory. Beirut’s French-language daily L’Orient-Le Jour underlined the peculiarity of the warning, as U.N. Security Council Resolution 1441 “insists on the fact that inspections must be a surprise.” The paper called this “the first controversy facing U.N. inspectors.”
Syria’s official Teshreen, reflecting its government’s anxiety about a conflict next door, focused on an anti-war demonstration in Istanbul. This included, it wrote, “thousands of people, belonging to 140 civil organizations, who condemned a possible U.S. war on Iraq, shouting slogans demanding that the Turkish government distance itself from any U.S. plan against the people of the region.” The paper also misquoted a statement from the International Atomic Energy Agency’s director, Muhammad Baradei, to the BBC, in which he is said to have remarked, “There are no signs whatsoever since the beginning of inspections that Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction.” It omitted Baradei’s key caveat, “but we are far from being able to reach a conclusion,” a statement the Bahrain Tribune carried in full, including Baradei’s avowal that inspections might last a year.
A key factor in a possible war in Iraq is how the country’s Shiite majority would react to an allied attack. Recently, pro-Saddam Iraqi Shiites issued a fatwa, or religious ruling, prohibiting collaboration with the United States in the event of war. This drew a response from Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, the exiled head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the main Shiite opposition group. In the London-based Al-Hayat Sunday, he said: “No fatwa exists preventing collaboration with the Americans. … Collaboration is legal, if the aim is dialogue, and it requires three conditions: that it is authorized by the legal authorities, that it respects Islamic principles, and that it is intended for the collective good.” The Tehran-based SCIRI is close to Iran, though Hakim, who has been wooed by the Bush administration, also underlined his differences with Tehran. He reported the organization would “open an office in the United States to oversee the affairs of Iraqis living there.”
Perhaps the United States and Iran aren’t as far apart as it sometimes seems. In a front-page story, the Saudi daily Al-Sharq al-Awsat quotes the influential former Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsandjani proposing that Iran and the United States resume oil ties, on condition the latter reduces its “haughtiness” toward Iran, since “no one can guarantee security in the Gulf without Iranian agreement.” The story refers to wire reports, citing unidentified European diplomats, suggesting the United States and Iran have reached “agreement allowing U.S. aircraft to violate Iranian airspace in the event they are the target of Iraqi anti-aircraft fire” during an Iraq war.
Meanwhile, another Iraqi opposition figure, Nizar Khazraji, is still cooling his heels in a Copenhagen suburb. Khazraji, a former Iraqi army chief of staff who defected in 1996, has been prevented from returning to northern Iraq by a Danish magistrate investigating his suspected participation in the 1988 Anfal campaign, in which Saddam’s forces killed up to 100,000 Kurds. In an extended interview with Al-Hayat, Khazraji warned that a war would lead to “a tearing up of the army and of Iraq and would be a calamity for the country and probably the region.” However, he said this could be avoided if the United States relies on Iraqis, particularly the army, which he once led and evidently hopes to lead again:
I am sure that as soon as we set foot in Iraq, military units will join us … time is pressing and we must move. Saddam … fears the opposition, but his biggest source of fear is the armed forces … and there are a large number of officers and soldiers who are ready to work with us so that we can fight our way to Baghdad.