US should back off its bombing and sanctions of Iraq, get a plan

It is eight years now since a US-led alliance pushed Saddam Hussein's army out of Kuwait. But Washington's policy toward Iraq is mired in multiple failures. The administration has no clear and achievable ranking of its goals with respect to Iraq, and no way of connecting the means it uses with those goals. These disconnects have serious human and political costs, which merit a deep, administration-wide rethinking.

The latest example of fuzzy policy? The report by The Washington Post that the administration decided a couple of years back to infiltrate the UN's weapons-inspection teams inside Iraq in order to place Central Intelligence Agency sensors alongside UN listening devices there. The CIA wanted to do its own "listening" to internal Iraqi communications, and it didn't tell the UN what it was doing.

Richard Butler, the feisty head of the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) in Iraq, reportedly felt the CIA had "played him for a sucker." Both Mr. Butler and his predecessor, Rolf Ekeus, noted that, if true, the CIA's reported activities would weaken the credibility not just of UNSCOM, but of many other arms-control efforts around the world. They're right.

It's increasingly clear the Clinton administration doesn't care much about UNSCOM anymore. Iraq has forbidden entry to UNSCOM inspectors since last December, when the US and Britain bombed the country in an operation whose exact relation to the UN was never fully clarified. Since then, US warplanes have escalated the level of confrontation over the two no-fly zones that cover more than half of Iraq. Administration officials have never sought to describe these continued bombings as part of any officially declared state of war. But during the first 10 weeks, American planes and ships lobbed more than 270 high-explosive projectiles against mainly military targets inside Iraq.

Some US analysts say these bombings will help turn Iraqis against Saddam Hussein. That, as anyone who has studied Hitler's blitz against London would know, is very unlikely. Meanwhile, US allies in the Gulf are starting to ask publicly that the bombing be halted.

That's the mess at the strategic level - or at least part of it. At the human level, US diplomats at the UN follow a policy that contributes to the deaths of around 5,000 young Iraqis each month. The UN has maintained tight economic sanctions against Iraq since 1991 - supposedly to force full governmental cooperation with UNSCOM. UNSCOM is now in limbo, but the sanctions continue. In 1996, the UN agreed to lessen the suffering of ordinary Iraqis by allowing Iraq to export some oil, and use a portion of the revenue to import food and medicine. But Iraq's oil installations hadn't been repaired after the Gulf War, and it could never export as much oil as the UN allowed.

The recent US bombing put yet another main Iraqi pumping station out of use. Meanwhile, American diplomats at the UN refuse to allow Iraq to import water-filtration equipment that would prevent most of the infant deaths there. Since the end of the Gulf War, nearly half a million young Iraqis have died from causes directly related to the sanctions, according to UN humanitarian officials.

With all the suffering and destruction that the administration is causing to Iraqis, does it at least have a clear plan for bringing to Iraq the change of regime that it now says it wants to see there? No. Even US officials admit Iraqi opposition groups are in disarray - and also that most potentially credible Iraqi political figures now see any public association with Washington as a political kiss of death.

So the political stalemate runs on and on. Iraq's 23 million people are caught in a vise between a brutal regime at home and a confused and destructive US policy.

It's time for the US to back off. The time for outsiders to help overthrow Saddam was in the flush of military and political momentum, eight years ago. In February 1991, earth-shaking popular insurrections erupted in both north and south Iraq. But President Bush chose not to aid them, and there has not been any achievable hope of the US doing anything to replace Saddam since then.

Meanwhile the bombing continues, and Iraqi children continue to die. This destructive policy should cease immediately.

*Helena Cobban writes on foreign affairs from Charlottesville, Va.

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