Iraq’s acceptance last week of a United Nations plan to permit limited oil sales for humanitarian purposes has fueled a simmering debate among moderate Arab governments over the wisdom of a once unthinkable prospect: the rehabilitation of President Saddam Hussein.
While there is no love lost between Saddam and most Arab leaders, officials in several Persian Gulf countries - and to some extent Egypt and Jordan - have begun to call for an end to the crippling international trade sanctions imposed on Iraq after its 1990 invasion of Kuwait.
These officials contend that the sanctions are punishing the Iraqi people, not the government, are threatening Iraq’s territorial integrity and are providing an opportunity for another hostile country, Iran, to establish itself as the dominant military power in the Persian Gulf region.
The United Arab Emirates has launched a highly public campaign to persuade its neighbors the time has come to normalize diplomatic and economic ties with Iraq. U.A.E. has hinted it is prepared to do so on its own if necessary.
In Egypt, meanwhile, officials have accused Washington of delaying for political reasons the oil-for-food deal, which will permit Iraq to sell, under U.N. supervision, $2 billion worth of oil over six months to pay for food and medicine. Egypt also was reported to be trying to broker a reconciliation between Iraq and Kuwait by arranging a meeting between their parliaments’ speakers.
The United States contends that any talk of removing the trade sanctions is premature, given unanswered questions about the U.N. effort to make sure Iraq has no nuclear, biological or chemical weapons programs. That view is shared by Saudi Arabia and Kuwait; both assert that Saddam will pose a grave threat to the region until he is removed from power.
Saddam has profited from several recent developments. The first was the return of Iraqi troops to northern Iraq’s Kurdish region in early September. That provided a foothold for renewed government authority in the rebellious area and exposed strains in the anti-Iraq coalition that drove Saddam’s forces from Kuwait in the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
Then there was his decision last week to accept the U.N. oil-for-food plan - a move analysts said could free additional resources for the Iraqi military.
These developments have occurred against a backdrop of growing anger among ordinary Arabs over the trade sanctions and the role of the United States in prolonging them. The view is that the sanctions unfairly punish the Iraqi people for the sins of their leader while doing nothing to weaken Saddam’s grip on power.
For several years, Egypt and U.A.E. in particular have been urging Saddam to comply with U.N. weapons inspections while holding out the carrot of reconciliation.