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The Sovereign's Astute Resolve
The normally bustling streets of Baghdad briefly took on a new, more ominous look late last week when thousands of soldiers, members of Iraq's police force and ruling Baath party members fanned out into the city, displaying guns and artillery, watching the traffic roar by and chatting among themselves. It was the first military exercise in the city from the time the US began its build-up in the neighbourhood, aimed at preparing security forces for the day war finally descends on Baghdad.
"This is scary," said a young man standing at a street corner. "The military exercise makes the war more real. It makes me think and worry." Even more alarming for the Iraqis was an order President Saddam Hussein issued to his governors last Wednesday, asking all Iraqi citizens to dig trenches in their gardens in preparation for war.
What Baghdadis didn't know was that their government had already, after weeks of defiance and conflicting signals, taken the crucial decision of destroying its stock of al-Samoud II ballistic missiles. But this wasn't announced in Baghdad; it was a UN spokesperson who said in New York last Thursday that Iraq had written a letter to chief UN weapons inspector Hans Blix agreeing "in principle" to destroy al-Samoud missiles. Then, because of the time difference, most in Baghdad were asleep. And even journalists woke up Friday morning to find themselves surprised about Iraq's acquiescence.
If there was ever an issue that the Americans believed they could hang their claims on for the necessity of an attack against Iraq, this was it. The Samoud missile was as close to a "smoking gun" that the US had been desperately searching for from the time the weapons inspection began.
At the crux of the missile controversy is al-Samoud's range. The weapons inspectors found that the missiles exceeded the UN-imposed limit by some 30 km (see infographic). Thirteen out of 40 missiles tested travelled more than 93 miles or 150 km, the outside limit set as a containment measure by the UN for Iraq after it invaded Kuwait. Though not grossly in violation of the limit, the UN was worried that al-Samoud was intended for bigger and better targets. In the 1991 Gulf War, Iraq launched Scud missiles at Israel, consequently worrying some about its intention in this new crisis.
When it was first suggested to Iraqi deputy prime minister Tariq Aziz that the UN may want to destroy the country's al-Samoud arsenal, his response was swift: it would be unacceptable. Aziz further ruled out Iraq's intention to target countries other than Kuwait, where thousands of US troops are amassed in preparation for a possible war. Iraq has repeatedly said the missile doesn't, in fact, have a range exceeding the UN limit, only that it lacks a guidance system which would normally lower its range. "The missile was and is still being researched on and developed and hasn't reached its final stage," General Mohammed Amin, the Iraqi government's liaison for the inspectors, said last week.
Subsequently, Blix sent a letter to Baghdad asking it to destroy the al-Samoud missile. This swiftly changed the situation in the Iraqi capital. Last Wednesday, Aziz, dressed in his military uniform, wasn't interested in a large scrum of reporters waiting to ask him what he thought of Blix's request. After addressing an Egyptian delegation visiting Baghdad, his bodyguards efficiently and roughly cleared a path for him through the microphones and pointed cameras, and he was off.
Journalists had to make do with his comments earlier at the conference, where he said that Blix's request for destroying al-Samoud was under study. A day before this, Saddam, in an interview with cbs, said outright that Iraq did not have any missile that exceeded the UN range-limit.
Yet in the same interview, Saddam demonstrated his willingness to cooperate. "We have committed ourselves to the (UN 1441) resolution," he said. "We are implementing that resolution in accordance with what the United Nations wants us to do. It is on this basis that we have conducted ourselves and it is on this basis that we will continue to behave.... (We are allowed to) produceþ# rockets with a range of up to 150 km. And we are committed to that."
For Iraq, Blix's request had put it in a tight corner. Stripped of many of its weapons under the UN inspection and monitoring regime following the 1991 Gulf War and standing as it is at the end of George W. Bush's gun barrel, Iraq was loath to give up an important element of its defensive arsenal. There were even reports last week that al-Samoud had already been issued to some elements of the military here.
But most here had believed that Iraq would relent. It has acceded to some of the inspectors' most pressing demands. For instance, it allowed U2 planes to fly over the country to support the weapons inspectors and permitted some scientists to be interviewed in private by the inspectors.
The al-Samoud controversy, once again, demonstrates Iraq's swing from stubborn refusal to concede to UN demands to last-minute acquiescence. Perhaps Iraq wants to portray to the Arab world its resolve to uphold its sovereignty, unwilling to compromise until the deadline is reached—and all options exhausted. This isn't what you could say of most countries in the region.