Last week, Canadian war reporter Scott Taylor went halfway across the globe, to get the inside story on what is happening inside Iraq. He can testify not only to the mood in the capital among high-ranking diplomats, but also the 11th hour negotiations that might avert a war- if they can somehow subvert the stated desires of White House hawks for a full-scale invasion.
I caught up with Scott yesterday, just after his arrival in Skopje, where he will be cover this weekend’s elections.
The Mood in Baghdad
CD: How is the mood in the capital? Are the Iraqis preparing for war?
ST: There was a strange sense of complacency apparent when I first arrived (on the 5th). The Iraqis did not seem to really believe that the US will really attack. Iraq is so cut off, and they’re so believing in their own propaganda, that they had no idea.
There are so few international players in Iraq, it seems like everyone is meeting with Tariq Aziz or some (other high official). The climate is totally controlled. No one has any leeway. Of course, there are very few business delegations, as foreign investment is suspended. And the foreign press corps numbered only about 15 people- BBC, NBC, London Evening Standard, ABC (Australia), some Spanish journalists, myself, and a few others, mostly Arabic.
CD: Did you have any trouble arranging meetings?
ST: I have been there five times, and in the past I have had much easier access. Even the Iraqi officials are being monitored more closely by their own secret services.
One day, I was going for a jog, near some official building, when uniformed soldiers came up and pointed me back to the hotel at gunpoint. These guys were not the normal conscripts- they were the famous, highly trained Republican Guards.
The Inside Word on Recent US Military Activity
CD: What can you tell us about the recent large-scale air attacks by the US on Iraq?
ST: The big one- a 100 plane raid on Friday the 6th- was in Rutba, a military town, close to the Jordanian border. It is strictly a military area.
People don’t know, but American troops are also conducting troop movements in Jordan, together with the Jordanian army. The Jordanian leaders are telling their people that this is a normal, annual desert exercise. But this might be a means for them (the US) to deploy special forces and reconnaissance. This exercise has been going on for the last month, with several thousand troops.
Jordan has said they will not allow any US attack. But even the people there don’t know what to expect. It certainly won’t be the main point of attack, but it could be used by small groups of US special forces.
CD: Anything more recently?
ST: There was an American testing of the Iraqi air defense on Saturday the 7th. It was probably with drones, because there were no explosions. They were preparing for war by feeling out Iraqi defense capabilities. And I took a 25 minute DVD tape of it, from 10:30-11:00 PM on Saturday.
A Sudden Realization: War is Imminent
CD: So, what’s the latest?
ST: The attitude (of complacency) changed this Monday. Tariq Aziz came back then from the summit meeting in Johannesburg. The Foreign Minister also returned from abroad at the same time. At an Iraqi cabinet meeting on Monday, everything changed. They realized from these trips that world opinion was hardening. They came back with a different perspective, and realized that the sands of time were running out.
CD: So, did you see evidence of a military buildup?
ST: The Iraqi leadership admits that they can’t fight the Americans. There is no bravado at the top end. The people in the streets will all tell you that they will eat the Americans if they have to, but the top generals all know it is futile.
11th Hour Diplomacy
CD: What is the probability that Bush and the hawks in his cabinet will win out, and he will soon have a full-scale war?
ST: The British and French have just cut a deal. Blair met with Chirac in the last four days. They are going to draft some sort of "Framework Agreement." It looks like what they’re going to put forward, by the 20th of September, is a proposal for a resolution, giving a maximum three week deadline for Iraq to comply with a new weapons inspection program.
The States kind of blew it. By pushing this thing about changing the regime, they lost support. Now they’re really trying to push it on the weapons inspection deal. Everyone is trying to find a way to make that the deal.
CD: But the French? They are always opposed to the US on this issue.
ST: The French are going to go against Iraq- and this will be a shock to the Iraqis. They think that the French are on their side. Probably the top end of the hierarchy knows, but the rest of the officials aren’t being told anything.
The Security Council has five members, and now the Russians have been bought. The whole reason they signed up $40 billion in contracts in Iraq, was so that they could say to the US, "for any invasion, we want $40 billion in trade guaranteed afterward." The Iraqis never believe that Russia would go against them, after such an investment. And the Chinese never want to stand alone. So there will be a UN mandate, I predict.
CD: How will this work?
In Baghdad, I met with Toby Dodge of London’s Royal Institute of International Affairs. He is one of the world’s leading Iraq experts. I knew Toby from before. Although he has a quasi-role as a journalist, writing op-ed pieces, Toby was there to try to bridge a deal. He appeared to be there on his own, not as an "official" representative of the UK government.
Toby was advising the Iraqis just how urgent it was that they submit to the weapons inspection program that the US is now demanding. He had a 90 minute meeting with Tariq Aziz on the night of 11 September. They are trying to put together a deal whereby, to try and save face, an "honest broker" could oversee the weapons inspectors. The two countries they are looking at are South Africa and Canada. This proposal was brought to them by Scott Ritter, former head of weapons inspections.
Canada: the 'Honest Broker?'
CD: But why Canada?
ST: Now they have in place a possible diplomatic solution- bringing in weapons inspectors, under independent overseers. I know from a source among the highest Iraqi officials that the Iraqi foreign minister is going to meet with the Canadian foreign minister, Bill Graham, within two days in New York. Canada is probably going to take a leading role.
CD: But how will this play out?
ST: Chretien met with Bush on Monday. Before that meeting, on Sunday, Deputy Minister John Manley made statements that in any war, the American would be going in without Canadian support. But after Chretien’s meeting, he announced he was prepared to "listen" to Bush.
Canada has been ambivalent on the idea of war… but this ambivalence is enough for the Iraqis to be hopeful in Canada’s role.
Part of it as well is that Manley a few weeks ago was one of the most strident hawks, stating that Saddam possessed chemical weapons and intended to use them. He did a complete 180. He did it to provide Bush a loophole to get out of a war- to save face.
Weapons Inspection as Espionage
CD: But in terms of an "independent overseer," is Iraq even in a position to dictate conditions?
ST: If you know the facts, the truth is on the side of Iraq. However, because of America’s might and their war fever… if Iraq allows weapons inspectors back in, knowing of the past transgressions, then they have to have some guarantee- at least a pretense of a guarantee- before their public can accept it.
And they do know about the past transgressions. Scott Ritter, former head of weapons inspections, briefed the Iraqi National Assembly last Sunday. He admitted, first of all, that when he pulled out in 1998, Iraq was 95% weapons free, and the other 5% were technical material that posed no tangible threat.
He also said, for the first time, that they were actually spying on the Iraqis while there. He made it point blank: his teams were used to pinpoint locations which were subsequently bombed in the 1998 strikes against Iraq, which were aimed more at "leadership" targets (i.e., assassinating Saddam) than weapons destruction.
A Risk of Casualties from a Ground War?
CD: What will happen if the US tries for a land invasion of Iraq?
ST: I’ve seen no evidence that the Iraqis are serious about their claim to fight in the streets of Baghdad, if there is a land invasion. But I think that if the Iraqis resist, it will create a humanitarian crisis like we’ve never seen.
CD: How is that?
ST: Baghdad is over 10 million people. If the non-combatants fled the city- and at least 6 million of that population would be woman, children and the elderly- there would be a refugee disaster… you know, this is not an area like Europe, where people can easily rush in humanitarian aid. It would be ten times worse than the Kosovo refugee crisis- and with 10 times less the infrastructure.
CD: But do you think the Americans really care about "collateral damage?"
ST: You can’t hide 6 million refugees. Imagine the American ground forces come in, and are met by ragged, fleeing civilians? What would they do, fight them? America is also going in with zero percent Arab support… if they found 6 million civilians on the road to Baghdad, how would they enter it? The world would go nuts.
Their belief is that the people will rise up. But they (the US) are not even dropping leaflets like before. All the stuff that Bush is taking to the UN, about validating a regime change, is based on the idea that Saddam once attacked his neighbors. But don’t forget, he attacked Iran with the blessings of the Americans. And the Iraqis thought, wrongly, that they had the green light on Kuwait… they thought it was being seen as an internal problem of Iraq, and that they had the US permission to go in. Obviously, they made a big mistake.
And the Iraqis are still hopelessly out of touch with how the rest of the world perceives them.
'The Americans Need a War'
CD: How do you explain the US’ rationale for war? Could they cut a deal so that Saddam would remain in power, or are they serious about removing him this time?
ST: The Americans need a war. Otherwise they will realize they didn’t win anything in Afghanistan. How do you wage a war on terrorism? Where do you attack, and when is it over? The truth is, you can never beat terrorism for good- it is an intangible enemy.
But now, in Saddam, the Americans have a tangible enemy, and they’re confident it will be as bloodless and quick as the previous Gulf War.
CD: So this all has to do with Saddam as a personality? Victory will be achieved when he is deposed?
ST: Bush recently stated that he will change the regime. Basically, this war will be about one thing: pitting his presidency against that of Saddam Hussein. Don’t forget, despite the Gulf War, all the sanctions, and the constant minor air raids, Saddam is still in power and will not be deposed from within. He outlasted Bush’s father, and Clinton too.
CD: But wasn’t the same rationale used in the case of bin Laden? There hasn’t been any victory as far as he’s concerned.
ST: Yes, but don’t forget, bin Laden doesn’t run a country. With Saddam he is tangible… and locatable.
The Main Problem: Finding Saddam
CD: Yet there was a story recently quoting a Yugoslav engineer, who had worked on building Saddam’s bunkers in years past. The engineer claimed that the elaborate and rock-solid bunker system was impregnable. Your thoughts?
ST: Look, it’s not about bunker-busting, it’s about finding him. The US has daisy cutters and bunker-busters and even, I suppose, they could go nuclear.
But the problem is that the US has no intelligence in Iraq- nobody. And even in the period when the weapons inspectors were there, and the US had at least some intel, it still failed. They shotgunned a hundred places, and still couldn’t find Saddam.
Al Qaeda and the Kurds
CD: Will the Kurdish provinces be inclined to rise up and overthrow Saddam, in your opinion?
ST: The Kurdish provinces in the north have been liberated since the Gulf War. They would not be easily persuaded to invade. They got what they wanted.
But ironically, these areas are where the evidence keeps emerging of an al Qaeda presence. The Kurdish territories are controlled by the UN, but this is where they are making the chemical weapons!
Interestingly enough, Bush himself called off the air attack about three weeks on these provinces. Without Iraqi control, it has become a lawless territory, run by warlords. The Turkish delegation in Baghdad is pissed off, because this instability causes problems among the Syrian, and especially Turkish Kurds.
About Scott Taylor
Canadian war reporter Scott Taylor is a well-known military expert and former soldier, most renowned for his work in Kosovo and Macedonia. He runs Canada’s foremost military magazine, Esprit de Corps. Scott’s work has been featured several times on Antiwar.com. His most recent book, Diary of an Uncivil War, is a provocative first-hand recounting of the Macedonian conflict of 2001.
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