An Iraqi court, apparently seizing the opportunity to slap at the United States, sentenced two Americans to eight years in prison Saturday for illegally entering the country when they strayed across the Iraq-Kuwait border two weeks ago.
The sentences, after an unannounced one-day trial, produced a sharp reaction from the White House and State Department, where officials vowed “aggressive diplomatic efforts” to obtain the release of the men.
The officials were quick to add, however, that Washington would make no concessions to the regime of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in exchange for the return of the Americans and was unlikely to take any military action.
“There is no justification whatsoever for these sentences,” State Department spokeswoman Christine Shelly said in a written statement issued after the Polish Embassy in Baghdad, Iraq, reported the outcome of the trial. Poland has looked after U.S. interests in Iraq since the United States and Iraq severed diplomatic relations after Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait.
As is often the case, Iraq’s motives were far from clear. Officials speculated that some clues might lie in Iraq’s ongoing effort to persuade the U.N. Security Council to ease economic sanctions imposed after the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Hussein may believe that by jailing the Americans he can exert pressure on Washington. But U.S. officials said that tactic - if indeed Hussein were employing it - would fail.
“If he (Hussein) thinks this is the way to get the sanctions eased he is sadly mistaken,” a senior State Department official said. “There is no way we will link the two issues.”
The official said in the past other foreigners, including an American, were given harsh sentences for crossing into Iraq but eventually were released after less than a year in prison.
“We are going to try to convince the Iraqis that this is a humanitarian case,” the official said. “This is not a political thing. These guys wandered across the border quite innocently. There is no justification for eightyear sentences. It is ludicrous.”
The Americans, David Daliberti, 41, of Jacksonville, Fla., and William Barloon, 39, of New Hampton, Iowa, were employed by two U.S. defense companies doing military maintenance work for the government of Kuwait. Western officials said they inadvertently crossed the border March 13 while trying to visit friends in the U.N. force that monitors the frontier.
Shelly said the two “committed no offense justifying jail sentences. … In our diplomatic contacts we are making it clear that Iraq has nothing to gain through this obviously misguided attempt to take advantage of two Americans.”
Iraq did not announce the trial in advance, and the state-run Iraqi News Agency did not report on it. Two Polish diplomats were present as observers, and the Americans were represented by a court-appointed Iraqi lawyer.
Trials in Iraq are conducted before a judge but without a jury. The maximum sentence for illegally entering Iraq is 20 years in jail.
Despite the outrage expressed by administration officials, there was no hint that force might be used against Iraq.
“We’re going to pursue a diplomatic solution,” a senior administration official said. “We are going to do it very aggressively. We will do whatever it takes to get these guys back, but I wouldn’t want to lead you to think we will take military action.”
Ever since Iraq’s surrender in early 1991, the Baghdad regime has sought to escape the grip of U.N. sanctions. Often its efforts are wildly counterproductive. For instance, when the sanctions were under review last year, Iraq sent some of its best troops toward the Kuwait border in a threatening maneuver that prompted President Clinton to rush reinforcements to Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.
In recent months, Iraq has launched a new diplomatic offensive that has persuaded France and Russia to call for a relaxation of the sanctions. In response, Secretary of State Warren Christopher and U.N. Ambassador Madeleine Albright visited the capitals of other U.N. Security Council members to shore up support for the sanctions.
U.S. officials said they have received pledges of support from a majority of the council’s 15 members. Although the United States has veto power in the council and could kill a resolution even if all 14 other members supported it, the administration is reluctant to use that authority.
The sanctions cover a range of economic activities. But the most damaging measure prohibits Iraq from selling its oil on the world market, except to obtain funds to buy food and medicine and to pay war reparations. Iraq has refused to take advantage of the exception, complaining that the restrictions on the use of the money constitute an infringement on its sovereignty.
Christopher recently told the sixnation Gulf Cooperation Council that the United States is willing to consider easing the embargo to alleviate the economic suffering of the Iraqi public. But he said it is up to Iraq to suggest an oil-sale plan that would guarantee that none of the money would go to support the Iraqi military machine. Iraq has not responded.