Aziz: US Outsmarting Itself on Iraq


Few diplomats have a more difficult job than Tariq Aziz, Iraq's deputy prime minister.

Bespectacled and with the bookish calm of a professor, he is President Saddam Hussein's chief liaison with the outside world.

Mr. Aziz articulates the defiant world view of a regime that the Clinton administration has called "irredeemable." He argued Iraq's case throughout the 1990 invasion of Kuwait and the 1991 Gulf war. He is, one diplomat here says, the "acceptable face" of the regime.

Iraq is focusing on the "immoral imbalance" caused by the embargo, he said in a rare interview, and on winning support from countries such as Russia, China, France, and Italy to undermine America's visceral opposition to his boss.

He lambastes the United States for delaying critical humanitarian contracts in the UN sanctions committee. UN figures - blaming Iraq - put the children's death toll since the Gulf war at more than half a million.

"It's a policy of hatred, that's very clear," Aziz says, his voice steady with a well-practiced cadence. "But real strategists do not build policy on hatred, especially a superpower."

The US policy of "dual containment" of Iraq and Iran is also shortsighted, he asserts. It undermines US interests in the Persian Gulf and, with 20,000 troops deployed in the region, is destabilizing.

Many Gulf sheikhdoms, however, still consider Saddam Hussein the top threat. Aziz counters that only Kuwait is unwilling to forgive Iraq.

Encouraged by Washington, though, Gulf states have spent billions of dollars on mostly US military hardware to protect themselves.

"Iraq occupied Kuwait, and that is unacceptable. But Iraq has been out of Kuwait for six years, so why should the sanctions continue?" Aziz asks. "The answer is: The American administration does not like Saddam Hussein. So what? It doesn't like Fidel Castro, or this or that."

US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has made clear that Iraq would remain "trapped within a strategic box" as long as Saddam was in power. And Iraqi officials point to the "real" US policy by noting that Congress in the past approved $40 million for covert operations to destabilize the regime.

But Iraq is taking advantage of apparent cracks in the original US-led military coalition that forced Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait, Aziz confirms.

Change was evident after Iraqi forces moved into the Kurdish north of the country last September, in defiance of a coalition no-fly zone.

Then, with even Gulf states reluctant to assist the US military response - Saudi Arabia refused to permit the launching of attacks from its bases - the alliance appeared in tatters.

Washington was further humiliated by the surprise exposure of an ineffective CIA covert operation that forced an airlift to Guam of some 5,000 Iraqi Kurds who had been "compromised."

"This was quite different from Kuwait in 1990," Aziz says. "But the Americans interpreted the actions as a threat. To whom? It is another example of a policy that is not a policy, and nobody is buying it."

He says doubts among US experts about a credible US strategy for Iraq - now and after Saddam - add up to more American problems in the Gulf.

"Specialists all agree that the American position in the region is weaker than it is designed to be, and more costly than it is supposed to be," Aziz says. "In the US, people don't know how much it costs - this is almost a hidden secret."

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