Blurry edges of a hard line on Iraq
Convinced Iraq is rebuilding military programs, the US is enforcing no-fly zones - but with disputed accuracy.
Six white pick-up trucks idle near the Saddam General Hospital here, each bearing a wooden coffin. In the back of the lead vehicle, a man tenderly rubs the fabric of an Iraqi flag draped over the coffin, and then wipes a tear from his eye.Skip to next paragraph
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Outside the hospital gates, hundreds of men, some in military or police uniforms, mill around, denouncing the US and its friends Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.
The coffins contain the remains of six civilians, workers at a veterinary clinic in the town of As-Salman, killed Jan. 20 in a US missile attack on an alleged antiaircraft radar site. Aid workers visiting a week ago saw no evidence of a radar installation.
The truth of what happened last weekend in Iraq's southwestern desert may never be known. But the contradictions surrounding this latest US airstrike are emblematic of the confrontation between the world's only superpower and Iraq, the nation with the second-largest known oil reserves.
How to deal with Iraq may be one of the most difficult issues facing President Bush. Most Arab nations and some European governments are increasingly at odds with US policy toward this country, even as officials of the new administration insist that a hard line remains justified.
The US government appears convinced that President Saddam Hussein remains committed to rebuilding Iraq's military and reviving programs to develop biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons. If Iraq were not contained, the reasoning goes, Mr. Hussein would again pose a grave threat to the stability of the Middle East.
In recent days, two US newspapers have published reports saying that US officials are worried about renewed weapons production in Iraq and about an Iraqi-Syrian effort to circumvent UN regulations governing the sale of Iraqi oil.
The Iraqis are equally convinced that the US is determined to subjugate them, mainly out of a desire to control their greatest natural resource.
Gulf War origins
The catalyst for this enduring conflict, in fact, goes back to a struggle over oil.
In 1990, Iraq invaded the neighboring state of Kuwait, citing historical claims to the territory, following a dispute over the ownership of oil fields. The US organized an international coalition and then went to war in 1991, evicting the invaders from Kuwait but stopping short of toppling Hussein's government.
After a cease-fire, the UN Security Council decided to maintain a strict economic embargo against Iraq in order to force Hussein to yield to UN weapons inspections.
Independent of the UN, the US and other powerful nations also announced a ban on flights in the north and south of the country to protect rebel groups from Iraqi air attack.
The no-fly zone in the south went into effect after Iraq had crushed rebellion by Shiite Muslim militants seeking to exploit the unstable situation in Iraq following the Gulf War. No major rebellion has been mounted since the zone was imposed.
In the north of the country, Kurdish groups have been more in conflict with each other than with the government of Iraq. But the government has largely withdrawn from the region, allowing the Kurds to govern themselves in three northern provinces of Iraq.
A tremendous amount of military resources have been invested in restricting virtually all Iraqi air traffic - regardless of purpose - from the two zones. US and British aircraft have flown nearly 153,000 "sorties," or flights, over southern Iraq, says Lt. Col. Rick Thomas, a spokesman at the US Central Command in Tampa, Fl., which oversees the Middle East. In the fiscal year that ended in September 2000, the effort in the southern zone alone cost the US $1.4 billion.