Defying U.S., Arabs Widen Iraqi Ties : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

November 1, 2000

November 1, 2000

Defying U.S., Arabs Widen Iraqi Ties

AIRO, Oct. 31 B A growing number of Arab entertainers, intellectuals, politicians and business people have been flying off to Baghdad over the last two weeks, thumbing their noses at international sanctions and giving the Iraqi government a shower of publicity after its 10 years of near isolation.

The support for Iraq is a spillover from the recent outbreak of Palestinian-Israeli violence, which has prompted a resurgence of public support for the idea that the West, led by the United States, behaves badly toward the Arab world.

That has never been far from the oratorical surface. But once again, in a way that must please the Iraqi president, Saddam Hussein, the rallying cry for people from across the Arab political spectrum is "double standard," a shorthand reference to what is seen as American reluctance to hold Israel to account for its treatment of Palestinians.

To express their disaffection, in a dozen instances people in Lebanon, Egypt, Syria, Libya, Yemen and Jordan have not only embraced the Palestinian cause but have also chartered airplanes to fly to a hero's welcome at Saddam International Airport. Iraq reopened the airport in August as a challenge to the United Nations sanctions imposed after its invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

The latest to bow to the public mood and sign up for a flight was the Jordanian prime minister, Ali Abu al-Ragheb. He said he would fly to Baghdad on Wednesday to attend a trade fair aimed at "promoting the good relations between the two countries." Mr. Abu al-Ragheb, who will take 100 Jordanian journalists and politicians with him, would be the highest-ranking Arab official to arrive by air since the embargo went into effect.

In the view of the Clinton administration, some of the flights have violated the sanctions because they did not deliver aid for civilians or did not receive advance United Nations clearance.

Other countries, notably France and Russia, have argued that civilian flights were never specifically banned, although no one tested the point until recently.

Some who have recently made the journey say the point now is to contrast American support for the Israeli government of Prime Minister Ehud Barak with American opposition to lifting the embargo on Iraq and to make a point to Ariel Sharon, the leader of the right-wing opposition Likud Party in Israel.

"We are sending a message to Barak and Sharon that we shall not stand with our arms tied while you are killing Palestinians," said Muhammad Monieb, a Cairo lawyer who organized a flight to Baghdad last weekend for about 150 Egyptian celebrities.

Flying to Iraq is not meant to show personal support for the Iraqi president, added Mr. Monieb, a former chairman of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights.

"We fully support the return of Iraq to the Arab family," he said. "All Arab regimes are dictatorships. All Arab leaders commit mistakes against their own people. If the Americans consider Saddam a dictator, then let them tell us who is not a dictator in the region."

Iraq has responded to the recent political support from Arab countries by stepping up its campaign to have the sanctions lifted or to undermine them. It announced Monday that the state-owned airline, Iraqi Airways, would resume some domestic service on Nov. 5.

The airline canceled all internal flights in 1992 when the United States and Britain instituted no-flight zones aimed at protecting rebellious Kurds in the northern part of Iraq and Shiite Muslims in the south from attacks by Iraqi military planes and helicopters. American and British aircraft still patrol the zones and Iraq says their attacks on antiaircraft installations since the end of the gulf war have killed more than 300 people.

With stronger Arab public support, Iraq has also found a newly receptive audience for its assertion that it is the only true defender of Arab and Palestinian interests.

During the last week, as Arabs from other countries have been flying into Baghdad with food and support for Iraqis, Iraq has been sending food and supplies for the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. As Arab doctors have flown in with medicines for Iraqis, the Iraqis welcomed a Palestinian plane that brought several people wounded in clashes with Israelis to Baghdad for medical treatment.

Still, the public support is unlikely to translate into open sanctions-busting by Arab governments, most of which have urged the United Nations to lift sanctions but have pledged to follow the international rules.

Arab governments also have decidedly mixed views on Saddam Hussein. While several of the smaller Arab states have quietly re-established diplomatic relations with Iraq over the past few years, the West's main allies, like Egypt, have not reopened their embassies.

The Iraqi president's constant badgering of his fellow Arab leaders has not helped relations. After the emergency Arab summit meeting this month to respond to the Palestinian-Israeli violence, Iraq urged the overthrow of Arab governments. The bellicose demand was particularly stinging because the Arab League's invitation to Iraq to attend a summit meeting was the first in nearly 10 years.

Arab governments will nevertheless be obliged to take account of the public mood and to offer support for the Iraqi people, said Soliman Awaad, director of multinational relations in the Egyptian foreign ministry, adding, "We are under tremendous pressure from public opinion B and I'm not confining this to Egypt only, but all through the region as well as from our civil society B which is being promoted by the West and the U.N."

Mr. Awaad, who advocates lifting the sanctions, said his office had been inundated with requests from private groups to fly to Baghdad to show support for Iraq, while normally apolitical taxi drivers and shopkeepers have been badgering him about the sanctions.

"They are wondering about the silk glove used by the U.N. and its organizations in dealing with Israel, and comparing it to the clumsy rough hand with regards to Iraq," he said.

The sanctions on Iraq have become a constant irritant at the United Nations, particularly between Security Council members with different views on how to measure Iraqi compliance with the requirement that it no longer produce or store any weapons of mass destruction. Iraq has refused entry to inspectors.

Various United Nations bodies now have a number of sanctions-related issues before them.

Iraq recently announced, for example, that it would accept only euros in payment for the oil that the United Nations allows it to sell, instead of dollars, which it described as the currency of its enemy. The United Nations officials who oversee oil sales as part of the embargo rules said Monday that they have asked Iraq to delay carrying that out so they can study the idea.

For months, Iraq has also refused to accept an independent monitoring team proposed by the United Nations to survey civilian living conditions. To try to overcome its objections, Secretary General Kofi Annan proposed Monday that Thorvald Stoltenberg, a former Norwegian foreign minister and United Nations high commissioner for refugees, lead the survey committee.

-- Martin Thompson (, November 01, 2000

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