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How to Convince Iraq's Neighbors

Author: David L. Phillips, Executive Director, The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity
July 19, 2002
Wall Street Journal


NORTHERN IRAQ -- Iraq's front-line neighbors are becoming harder of hearing as the drums of war beat louder. They are reluctant to endorse military action against Saddam Hussein and would prefer business as usual, regardless of who rules in Baghdad. The situation will change only when they're convinced that the U.S. is serious about the removal of Saddam, at which point they will seek to secure their interests. To get there, the U.S. government should make it very clear to regional leaders that it is serious about Saddam's overthrow. It should also clarify post-Saddam plans for Iraq.

A visit last week to Turkey, Syria and Iraqi Kurdistan convinced me that many regional leaders support regime change in Baghdad, but are careful not to be too outspoken in calling for Saddam's ouster. For the Iraqi Kurds, the reason is clear: they have known both the wrath of Saddam and betrayal by the West. Since the Kurdish uprising was brutally suppressed in 1991, Iraqi Kurds have worked hard at recovery and reconstruction. After a decade of development and self-rule, they have a lot to lose from a half-hearted effort to remove Saddam.

Iraq's neighbors have likewise achieved a comfortable modus vivendi with the Baghdad regime. They violate international sanctions on Baghdad with impunity and, as a result, are awash in cheap oil smuggled out of Iraq. Front-line states have also benefited from Iraq as a customer of their cheap consumer goods, which are in little demand elsewhere in the international market.

On Sunday, U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz visited Turkey to deliver a clear message: The status quo in Iraq will not stand. Not only would Iraq pass its weapons know-how to terrorist groups bent on launching a nuclear attack against the United States, but Saddam is also a menace to his neighbors. Now is the time for them to secure their interests because, one way or another, Saddam must go.

Turkey is a crucial ally with unique concerns. Ankara worries about unrest among Turkish citizens of Kurdish origin; it insists that Iraq be preserved as a unitary state and that its future constitution adequately preserve central government institutions as a bulwark against separatism.

Moreover, Ankara needs cash to see itself through the current political crisis. Turkey is desperate to recover up to $40 billion in lost revenues from economic sanctions on Iraq since the Gulf War. Now that Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit has agreed to elections in November, a good way of getting the next government's support would be to offer a commercial agreement expediting cross-border trade to be implemented as soon as a new government is erected in Baghdad.

Iran is another regional power still smarting from its losses during the Iran-Iraq war. One of its concerns deals with Iraq's Shiites who, despite the fact that they constitute 60% of Iraq's population, have never been fairly represented in government. The West can give Tehran assurances that the new Iraqi government will respect its religious majority. The West, however, should harbor no fears that Iraq's Shiites constitute a fifth column that extends Iran's sphere of influence. Unlike the Shiites in Iran, Iraq's Shiites are Arabs.

To the south of Iraq is Kuwait, which can serve as a staging ground for U.S. forces invading Iraq. To sweeten Kuwait's involvement, it must be guaranteed the return of stolen goods and a complete accounting of persons who disappeared during Iraq's occupation. Kuwait also demands that the future Iraqi government recognize its undisputed claim to oil fields on the border; guarantee its territorial integrity; and enter into a mutual nonaggression pact, all reasonable demands.

While Kuwait has some moral authority to make requests, the same cannot be said of Saudi Arabia. The ruling House of Saud is increasingly discredited by its tyrannical rule and its refusal to cooperate in cracking down on al Qaeda since the terrorist attacks on September 11.

The U.S. is in a position to point out that social and political reforms are in Saudi Arabia's own best interest. Democratization would address popular grievances and, by enhancing transparency and accountability, make the regime a stronger and more reliable partner of the West.

Animosities between Syria and Iraq date back to the 1970s, when Saddam and Hafez Assad vied for leadership of the pan-Arab movement. Tensions were exacerbated when Syria backed the other side in the Iran-Iraq War and in Desert Storm. During discussions I had in Damascus last week, Syrians indicated that given the long history of enmity between their Baathist parties, President Bashar Assad would welcome the demise of his father's age-old rival.

Syria also suffers an acute water shortage. The U.S. could play a helpful role encouraging a Tigris water-sharing agreement between Syria, Turkey and the new Iraq.

While all of Iraq's neighbors stand to reap benefits from an end to economic sanctions, Jordan would be a primary beneficiary. Once military action against Iraq is underway, however, the U.S. should be prepared to provide an emergency economic-assistance plan for Jordan in order to help cushion civil unrest by Jordan's Palestinian population. King Abdullah desperately wants the U.S. to be more proactive in resolving the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

Much like it has for Afghanistan, the U.N. Security Council should, once the dust has settled, authorize an international peacekeeping force and establish an interim authority to consolidate peace, progress and advance democratic development. Widespread agreement exists that it is simply too dangerous to permit Saddam to stay in power. While regional powers are wary of U.S. hegemony, they increasingly recognize the inevitability of preemptive action. Assuring Iraq's neighbors that regime change would advance their interests fosters common purpose. It would also advance international cooperation and accelerate the demise of Saddam's heinous regime.

Mr. Phillips is a senior fellow and deputy director of the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

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