PARIS – United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan and Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri have had their first one-on-one meeting in more than a year in New York. There was no acrimony. They’ll meet again in April. In May the Security Council will get together to discuss the tightening of sanctions against Iraq.

Hawks in the Pentagon are obviously against any possible dialogue since Iraq has recently been promoted to the status of one-third of the George W. Bush’s axis of evil. This term was the expression chosen by some Hollywoodish ghost-writer to link the late US president Franklin Roosevelt’s “axis” of Germany, Italy and Japan during World War II and Ronald Reagan’s “evil empire,” his definition of the Soviet Union. But as a geopolitical entity, the axis of evil is as empty as a catch phrase hurled in the middle of a talk show to amuse the galleries.

But it’s lethal. It involves the nexus of US foreign policy for at least the next 10 years. It involves the Pentagon spending US$1 billion a day on defense from October onward. It involves no mercy for Iraq – the first country on the list to be attacked, sooner rather than later. It involves the Pentagon accusing Iraq of converting donated aid trucks into rocket launchers just as the New York meeting was about to start (no proof was shown).

The US wants just one thing: the return to Iraq of the nuclear-weapons inspectors thrown out in 1998. Iraq might even comply, as long as it is not subjected to an embargo that bleeds it dry and accomplishes nothing.

The now almost-forgotten Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88 – a million Iranians were killed, along with more than 200,000 Iraqis – was the direct result of the clash of two expansionist policies. Subsequently, the Gulf War was provoked by the Baath Party in Iraq, which tried to get hold of the “province” of Kuwait and its enormous oil reserves to increase Baghdad’s economic power and reinforce its regional hegemony. The Western reaction and the reaction of many Arab capitals was not as much dictated by the necessity of protecting the sovereignty of an independent state (Kuwait) as by the widespread desire to restrain the unrelenting geopolitical and geostrategic rise of Iraq.

The embargo against Iraq follows exactly the same logic. It is meant to prevent Iraq from once again taking Kuwait, and to prevent its rise as a military power. The great dream of the Baath Party in Iraq has always been to reunify southern Mesopotamia and then play a central role in the Persian Gulf after the inevitable “retirement” of British colonialism. The Baath Party’s strategy was also effective in offsetting Iraq’s eternal enemy Iran, and in propping up Iraq against the oil monarchies of the Arab peninsula. This whole geopolitical configuration couldn’t be anything but unacceptable to London, the former colonial power, or to Washington, which had its heart set on replacing London as the hegemonic power in the Gulf.

So more than 10 years after the Gulf War, London and Washington are still bombing Iraq – every week, like clockwork. Nobody knows what they are bombing, and nobody knows who the victims are or and where they are: the bombing is now invisible in the world media. UN Resolution 986 – the “oil for food” program – was supposed from its start in 1996 to ease the pain of the Iraqi population, but now its implementation is increasingly problematic. Iraq’s oil terminals, heavily bombed, are not capable of assuring the necessary volume of exports.

The director of the UN program himself, Benon Sevan, told the Security Council a little more than a week ago that “Iraqi oil exports in the current phase [of six months] reveal a drop of 35 percent in relation to the previous 10 phases.” This is due in part to the slow pace of Iraqi exports: most are transported by an immense serpent of trucks slouching toward the Jordanian border. But it is also due to many contracts “waiting” at the doors of the sanctions committee at the UN. Until last week, no fewer than 2,089 contracts, valued at $5.3 billion, were blocked. Most of them, according to European sources, involve Russian companies. What is blocked is essentially Iraqi access to the money placed in an account managed by the UN.

European diplomats and the Iraqi diaspora in Europe deplore in private the limitations of Resolution 986 – a basket of extremely mean and intolerant measures that cause distress to the bulk of the Iraqi population, especially in terms of public health and the general rhythm of social life. Even Benon Sevan is urging a revision of the program. Technologically, Iraq stopped in the very early ’90s. The strategy of the embargo plus sanctions seems to be clear: to plunge the country into a long-lasting underdevelopment. This policy is all the more absurd when viewed through the prism of history: Mesopotamia has been one of the most fertile regions in the world for millennia.

Meanwhile, the boys at Merrill Lynch are cracking open the Chateau Lafitte. The Lynch gang is assuming Iraq is the next country on America’s list, so it’s time to examine the fortunes of the defense industry. The conclusion is crystal-clear: “A military campaign in 2002 and 2003 against Saddam Hussein’s regime should profit the stocks of companies producing weapons and ammunitions.” This means war will be extremely profitable to Alliant Techsystems, Raytheon and L-3 Communications. Forty-two percent of Alliant’s sales are related to ammunition and missile engines. Raytheon produces the Tomahawk missile – a superstar both in the Gulf War and the New Afghan War.

The boys at Merrill Lynch double as military strategists. They suggest an air war at first. Ground war means problems – although this phase would be excellent for Alliant Techsystems and General Dynamics, because these companies provide ammunition for tanks and attack helicopters. The boys are careful to predict “non-conventional reactions” from Iraq, such as chemical and biological attacks. And if Iran and Russia are involved in any way in the war against Iraq, there could be “more losses in terms of American planes and combat vehicles.”

The boys come close to admitting that Boeing and Lockheed Martin, builders of commercial and military planes, would be the greatest beneficiaries of a probable extension of the war. Lockheed Martin has already bagged the greatest contract in history – $200 billion to build the joint strike fighter: 4,500 of these mean attack machines will be in use by 2025.

For the United States there’s no business like war business. America may have learned from the Gulf War that a conflict is not resolved without a political solution. The Afghan War is still going on. Saddam Hussein and the Baath Party are still thriving. Al-Qaeda’s aura is still intact among millions of dispossessed because Osama bin Laden and the leadership are still alive – and plotting. But why solve conflicts politically when war can go on, profitably, forever?

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