Iraq's Odious Debts

US resolution: It’s what’s missing that matters

Jonathan Eyal
The Straits Times, Singapore
May 11, 2003

AFTER weeks of triumphant defiance mixed with occasional dithering, the United States has finally returned the question of Iraq to the United Nations.

Last Friday, a new resolution was tabled by US diplomats, with the support of America’s perennial allies in the organisation: Britain and Spain.

And, in an effort to avoid previous clashes, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan took all the Security Council ambassadors for a weekend trip outside New York to exchange views on how the organisation should proceed. Yet, these are merely the first, seemingly calm opening steps in what is likely to be an exhausting diplomatic dance.

Ultimately, Washington’s position has not changed: It wants the UN to play just a minor role in the administration of Iraq. And America’s opponents have not shifted their position either.

On paper, the American-led resolution tabled before the Security Council is both coherent and comprehensive.

It envisages the immediate end of economic sanctions imposed on Iraq more than a decade ago when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, coupled with the fairly rapid phasing out of the ‘oil-for-food’ programme which the UN administers.

Furthermore, Washington proposes to continue forbidding trade in arms with the country, and to involve the UN and major international financial organisations in the management of Iraq’s economic reconstruction.

Additional sweeteners are also offered to France and Russia, the two veto-holding powers in the Security Council which had objected strenuously to the war: The American resolution promises them that Iraq’s debts, incurred by Saddam, will still be honoured by any new Baghdad government.

And, to cap it all, President George W. Bush has unveiled a new vision of a free trade area for the Middle East.

So far, so sensible. But the US-sponsored resolution is more significant for what it omits.

First, there is no promise of broad international involvement in the actual management of the government of Iraq; this is left in the hands of a body innocuously entitled the ‘Authority’ and miraculously composed of just the US and Britain.

Nor is there any promise that the UN – or its Security Council members – will actually control the way Iraq’s oil revenues are to be used.

And there is no mention of seeking a broader international mandate for the troops who will continue to be stationed in Iraq.

At every stage, the UN gets a walk-on role in a grand drama.

Theoretically, the Americans do not need the UN: they control Iraq with overwhelming force and, together with the British, have physical possession over all the country’s oil infrastructure. They are also the ultimate arbiters in the formation of a new government.

Nevertheless, there are limits to what Washington can accomplish unilaterally. The US needs a formal lifting of the sanctions, something which only the UN can authorise.

Washington also requires the involvement of global financial institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, to restructure Iraq’s debt and stabilise the country’s monetary situation.

The US’ chief critics in the Security Council – Russia, France and Germany – know the current debate is the last chance they will have to influence the future shape of Iraq.

If they go along with the US proposal, they will be eliminated from any decision-making capacity in the country for years.

So, what is their game? Essentially one of waiting, in the expectation that the US will get desperate.

Despite Washington’s triumphant statements, the reality is that the Americans have still failed to cobble together a government which could replace Saddam, a task which should have been accomplished even before the war started.

Meanwhile, law and order is still to be restored, the country’s economic infrastructure remains in disarray, the backlash against the Americans is growing and a cholera epidemic looms in the southern city of Basra.

More ominous still is the return of Ayatollah Mohammed Baqr al-Hakim, the venerated leader of Iraq’s Shi’ite Muslims, a cleric who opposed Saddam but is also likely to oppose the Americans.

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