IRAQ wanted to become the Middle East's dominant power and build close ties to the United States until early 1990, when the two nations clashed over Iraq's attempt to assert itself as the protector of the Persian Gulf, according to an unpublished book by a leading Iraqi journalist.
In a manuscript titled "The Gulf War and the One After," Saad al-Bazaz, editor-in-chief of the official Iraqi daily Al-Jumhuriyah, argues that between 1985 and 1990 the Iraqi leadership received signals that it interpreted as Washington's acceptance of Iraq as the major power in the region. The book says Iraqi leaders thought Washington would hand them what they called "the Middle East file" - acknowledgment of Iraq's leadership of the Arab world and the responsibility to negotiate a solution to the Arab -Israeli conflict, to protect the Persian Gulf, and to take a lead role in setting oil policy and prices.
But the potential "understanding" turned into confrontation, mainly because of a rivalry between Iraq and the US over each other's influence in the Gulf, which peaked when Iraqi President Saddam Hussein called for the departure of US fleets from Gulf waters in February 1990, Mr. Bazaz says. The decline in the relationship ultimately resulted in the Gulf war, which killed tens of thousands of Iraqi citizens and soldiers and 233 allied servicemen and women.
Bazaz's title, he says, is meant to suggest that the confrontation is not over, and that the enduring tension in the Gulf today - a little more than two years after the invasion of Kuwait - is testimony to the unresolved disputes over power and oil in the region.
Bazaz bases his account of the Gulf crisis on interviews he says he had with top Arab and Iraqi decisionmakers, documents that he says he obtained from Iraqi officials, and his own experience as a well-placed official throughout the period. Bazaz says he interviewed most of the high-ranking Iraqi decisionmakers involved in the crisis, and his writing appears to reflect their personal recollections, although only rarely does he explicitly attribute material to his sources.
What gives credence to Bazaz's claims is that he is going on the record in giving an account that criticizes the Iraqi leadership for a deluded, occasionally naive assessment of the respect the US would accord Iraq after its war with Iran. Such criticism of Saddam's regime is normally not tolerated, and to offer it is to risk imprisonment or death.
The book argues that the US and Iraq could have built close ties were it not for shared misunderstandings, the Iraqi leadership's penchant for conspiracy theories, and Washington's desire to control Arab oil. "There was mutual ignorance between Iraq and the US that led to wrong conclusions by both sides," maintains Bazaz. "But the major clashing point emanated from the competition over who would impose its protection on the Gulf."
According to the manuscript, in 1988 and 1989 the Iraqi leadership assumed that after its defeat of Iran, the decline of Soviet influence, and the relative economic and social prosperity that the Baathist Party government had brought to Iraq, the US would turn to it as a potential partner. The Iraqis also thought they would be seen as a reliable bulwark against Iranian fundamentalism.
"Iraq was acting under the influence of its victory ... and was demanding its recognition as a regional power," observes Bazaz. "Yet at the same time the US had also been victorious [against communism] and was demanding its recognition as the sole unchallenged power." No explicit overtures
Neither the segments of the manuscript that this reporter read nor interviews with the writer suggest that there were any explicit overtures by the US that reflected an acceptance of Baghdad's self-proclaimed role as the major Mideast power broker. Instead, the book says, the Iraqi leaders based their assumptions on implicit signals conveyed through official and informal channels, including:
* US support for Iraq during the last few years of the Iran-Iraq war, particularly in supplying intelligence about Iran, and the provision of billions of dollars in agricultural credits.
* The absence of US retaliation after a 1987 Iraqi missile attack on the USS Stark, which killed 37 American sailors.
* The interest expressed by US officials in Iraq's positions on Middle East issues, which gave the impression that the US wanted to give Iraq a key role in negotiating a settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
* Several attempts by Americans to set up contacts between Iraqi officials and Israelis. According to one Iraqi official, Israeli statesman Ezer Weizman, through an American journalist, sent the official a message expressing a willingness to meet. Bazaz says this and other overtures were interpreted as US attempts to test Iraqi readiness to handle the Arab-Israeli issue. The Iraqis dismissed these overtures.
* Official US descriptions, in the late 1980s, of Iraq as a "moderate" rather than a "radical" state.
It was not until the beginning of 1990 that the Iraqi leadership realized with disappointment that the US would not allow a regional power, especially Iraq, to act as the guardian of Gulf oil. The Iraqis had imagined - naively, the book suggests - that they would replace Saudi Arabia in the eyes of the United States as the region's most important oil power. Iraq has the second- largest known oil reserves in the world.
This conclusion coincided with the uncovering of coup attempts against Iraqi leaders and of espionage cells inside Iraq, some of which were allegedly connected with Saudi Arabia. Bazaz claims his book includes documentation about captured spies, although it was not made available to the Monitor. The leadership, which Bazaz says is overly influenced by conspiracy theories and lacks an understanding of the US decisionmaking process, concluded that Washington was not only blocking the emergence of Iraq as a regional power but was trying to undermine the regime. A direct challenge
On Feb. 10, 1990, Saddam directly challenged the US in a speech to the Arab Cooperation Council, convened in Amman, by calling for the departure of foreign fleets from the Gulf and making a clear bid for the leadership of the Arab world.
On the next day, April Glaspie, then-US ambassador to Iraq, protested Saddam's provocative call. From then on tension between Iraq and the US intensified, but it was not until April 1990 that Washington took a practical step that reflected a change in policy, canceling a $500 million installment of agricultural credits.
Judging by the Bazaz account, the Iraqi leadership was infuriated by what it viewed as the US's humiliating dismissal of its credentials as an Arab power and the US preference for "weak puppet regimes," as it saw the other Gulf countries.
By May 1990 the Iraqi regime became suspicious of Egyptian and Gulf states, especially when they resisted Saddam's bid to link Arab foreign policy to oil prices - an attempt that analysts then saw as a challenge to the US.
At the end of June 1991, the leadership decided to consider the military option to "punish" Kuwait, which had insisted on raising its oil production quota, a step that Saddam believed could undermine Iraq's economy.
But the book says the original objective of the Iraqi invasion on Aug. 2, 1990, was not to claim Kuwait as part of Iraq, but to undermine the Kuwaiti ruling family and install a friendly government. "The Iraqi leadership contemplated a relationship with Kuwait similar to the model provided by Syria's influence in Lebanon," says Bazaz.
He also asserts that Iraq agreed on Feb. 23, 1991, hours before the ground war started, to withdraw from Kuwait in return for a pledge from former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev that the US-led coalition would not launch a ground assault, and to drop its demand for a linkage between the Gulf crisis and a solution to the Palestinian problem.