Iraq: The Schedule Slips

18 January 2003

Iraq: The Schedule Slips

By Gwynne Dyer

It gets quite warm in Iraq between May and September, and the last conqueror of Baghdad, General Sir Stanley Maude, avoided the worst of the Mesopotamian summer by leading his British and Indian troops into the city in March of 1917. However, the Arab warriors who beat the Persian army and seized the country for Islam at the battle of Qadisiyah in 637 did their fighting in June. Over two thousand years before that, the army of King Hammurabi of Babylon fought in every season — and unlike the current generation of US Army tanks, his chariots didn’t even have air conditioning.

President George W. Bush’s father launched his ground attack on Iraqi forces in Kuwait twelve years ago next month, but the main reason for choosing a February date was the fact that it took five months after Saddam Hussein’s August, 1990 invasion of Iraq to build up a large American and allied army in Saudi Arabia, and another six weeks to soften the Iraqis up from the air. Other things being equal, it’s obviously nicer to get the fighting over before the hot season — but if Saddam’s army had no problem in attacking in August, why would the American armed forces?

The whole business about a February or March deadline for attacking Iraq because of the fierce Iraqi summer has been got up by the press. No such deadline exists, and the US army can attack Baghdad in any month of the year. Which is just as well if President Bush is serious about killing the man who “tried to kill my dad”, because the schedule for a US attack is now slipping visibly. The problem is not getting the troops into place, but getting all the other ducks lined up facing in the same direction.

Three major issues have to be cleared up before Bush orders the attack to begin, and the hardest to control is the position of America’s own allies. Every opinion poll shows that the American public will back Bush’s war if at least a couple of major allies come along, but gets cold feet if the United States has to do it alone. (The support for a war also drops below 50 percent if the poll-takers suggest that even one American soldier will be killed, but that’s another story.) It’s as though the US public needs at least one friendly foreign country to confirm Bush’s allegations about the need to destroy Saddam Hussein by showing up for the war.

This gives British Prime Minister Tony Blair quite a bit of leverage, for Britain is the only ally that would be likely to provide significant numbers of troops. Recently Blair has been using it his leverage by saying that the arms inspectors’ report to the United Nations Security Council on 27 January on their findings in Iraq over the first 60 days is no kind of deadline, and that Britain expects the process to continue for some considerable time after that. He hasn’t explicitly said that Britain would not go to war without a second UN resolution authorising an attack on Iraq, but he hasn’t said it would either.

Canada’s Prime Minister Jean Chretien, who could also give Bush very useful political cover if he sent even token Canadian forces to an Iraq war, has bluntly said that he won’t do so without another UN resolution. When his defence minister, John McCallum, tried to soften that line during a Washington visit in mid-January — “Some may say, ‘We’re (sending forces) only with a UN mandate.’ We’re saying we much prefer that, but we may do it otherwise” — Chretien cut him off at the knees. Mr. McCalluum, he said, had “replied to a hypothetical question, that he has reflected upon and corrected since that time.”

If the allies won’t go without another UN resolution, what are the chances of getting one soon? Not good, for no amount of threats and bribes will get the other Security Council members to vote for war without at least some hard evidence that Saddam Hussein is concealing weapons of mass destruction. That has not happened yet, and chief weapons inspector Hans Blix is refusing to be rushed: “There is no way we are going by the time-line of any administration, be it the American or any other,” he said on 18 January.

Then there is the domestic political problem. Karl Rove, Bush’s chief political adviser, would not be doing his job if he were not warning the president that a February war could mean he peaks too soon, just like his father did. Bush senior launched his ground attack in February 1991, won his war in March — and lost the election 19 months later because by that time the glow of victory had faded while the economy was still down. Wouldn’t it be better, Rove will be asking, to have the victory a bit closer to the November, 2004 election?

And then there’s the distraction of North Korea, and the difficulty with getting either Turkey or Saudi Arabia to commit firmly to letting the US use their territory for the attack on Iraq, and the probability that Saddam will seize foreign hostages again (maybe including the arms inspectors) if a US invasion looks imminent, and the sheer, foot-dragging reluctance of the US Army to come up with any plan that might involve its soldiers in street-fighting in Baghdad…. President Bush will almost certainly get his war in the end, one way or another, but next month is looking less and less likely.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 6. (“President…forces”;and “Canada’s…time”)