PARIS – An Islamic scholar born in Egypt tells Asia Times Online that as soon as US Secretary of State Colin Powell, a living portrait of moderation, pronounced the deadly magic words “material breach,” the Arab world had to swallow its bitter impotence and admit that war against Iraq was practically inevitable.

The whole world knows Saddam Hussein is indefensible: he tortures and kills opponents, has used chemical weapons against Iran and Iraqi Kurds, has produced biological weapons and tried to obtain nuclear weapons – even before the Gulf War, when the US and the UK generously supplied him with armaments, radioactive material and advanced military technology. But what concerns the Arab world is less the fate of Saddam than the exponential suffering of the Iraqi civilian population in case of war.

Destroy Saddam

The American strategy has been extremely efficient: it relies on the fact the US cannot be criticized because it is following the UN. This is one more splendid paradox coming from an administration that has boycotted the most consensual UN decisions – those regarding the International Court of Justice, global warming, children’s rights and the banning of nuclear tests.

Cato in Imperial Rome used to conclude all his speeches with the catch phrase “Carthago delenda est” (Carthage must be destroyed). Practically harmless in fact, Rome’s old enemy was blocking the construction of the empire and was also an unwanted competitor in the export of oil and grain. Then one day the Carthaginians violated their “exclusion zone” to pursue a bunch of robbers. This was the pretext Rome was waiting for, and it smashed Carthage into oblivion. Carthage had to die for the Roman Empire to live.

Just like Cato, George W. Bush doesn’t mince words as far as his new world order is concerned. Critics of the war all agree that Bush may not know much about the world outside Texas, but he knows something about oil: his family has been in this business for two generations. He also knows the war will mobilize more than 100,000 troops, will cost between US$100 billion and $200 billion, depending on the scenario, and afterwards will require maintaining 50,000 troops in Iraq, at a cost of $18 billion a year, perhaps for decades.

In exchange, the Bush administration may control the production and pricing system of oil in the world markets. Iraq, which was producing no more than 1.6 million barrels a day until a few months ago, and now is barely producing 500,000, could produce 3 million, 5 million or even 10 million barrels a day. George W. Bush has a vision of a world where the highest values in his moral scale – open markets and cheap gas – are explicitly guaranteed by the US Marines.

Nobody ever stresses that the Security Council resolutions adopted after the Gulf War are the most punitive collection of measures imposed on a country in peacetime since the Versailles Treaty. The economies of Germany and Japan were rebuilt after World War II, and both countries soon came back to the concert of nations. Iraq, on the other hand, has been devastated. All these years, Security Council members have been approving sanctions against Iraq so inhumane that two highly respected UN officials, Denis Hallyday and Hans von Sponeck, in charge of humanitarian aid to Iraq, resigned because they did not want to be accomplices to a policy described by both of them as “genocidal.”

Richard Falk, professor of international law at Princeton University, is one of the few to draw the relevant conclusions: “The West is ready to impose a punitive peace on Third World countries, especially Muslim countries. It is even capable of giving an appearance of legitimacy to these hate measures by their vote at the UN.”

Few outside the US are being fooled – as Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America know, Washington hawks have scant respect for the UN. It is widely recognized that the US, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, would never say a single word about the state of Israel’s illegal colonization and slow-burning ethnic cleansing policies in Palestine – practices widely condemned by UN member states.

Frustrated UN diplomats have been reaffirming off the record that Resolution 1441, the way it was voted on November 8, is a blank check for war and nothing but a convenient instrument of American policy. No matter what it does, Iraq is condemned in advance.

The process has nothing to do with Iraq’s disarmament and everything to do with “regime change” – which specialists in international law like Falk define as a direct interference in a country’s sovereignty and its people’s right to self-determination.

Washington is actively sponsoring post-Saddam Iraq. During the recent, highly-publicized Iraqi opposition meeting in London, says the respected Al Hayat newspaper, the American delegate Zalmay Khalilzad – the man who according to Afghans stole the Loya Jirga from King Zahir Shah – actually threatened the 300 participants. He said “Washington could name a military governor after the fall of Saddam Hussein if the conference finished without an agreement.”

For the London-based Palestinian paper Al Quds Al Arabi – one of the only pan-Arab papers to escape Saudi control – the meeting was organized by the US to fulfill its own interests: “They got what they wanted: a political cover for their military objectives.” For Al Quds Al Arabi, the main beneficiaries are “the pro-Iranian Shi’ites and the Kurds. This assures the ‘Shi’ite-Kurd coalition’ a big influence over the nomination of members of the provisional [Iraqi] government, scheduled for January 15.” Arab diplomats fear that by playing up ethnic and religious components, the US will be forcing post-Saddam Iraq to lose its Arab character.

According to a recent Gallup poll, 91 percent of Americans think the Iraqi weapons declaration is a lie, but 66 percent think the administration should not go to war before the lies are proved by the UN inspectors. This is one of the reasons the US administration may take its time until January 27, but another reason is that the Pentagon military machine won’t be ready until late January or early February.

The best Arab observers have no doubt that Saddam Hussein will do everything in his power to make the Americans pay a tremendous price for the invasion. American military planners know the urban guerrilla scenario is very much on the cards: a Fortress Baghdad heavily protected by Saddam’s elite Special Republican Guard plus the two regiments of the Republican Guard, in a 21st century remake of the Siege of Stalingrad.

There’s a possibility Saddam may set fire to Iraq’s oil fields – as he did in 1991 in Kuwait. He may also be betting on collateral damage reaching an unbearable level for Western public opinion, way beyond the estimated 3,000-plus civilian victims of American bombing during the New Afghan War. If Saddam Hussein, the ultimate survivor, resorts to employing his crude chemical or biological weapons, the White House’s assurances that it would go nuclear will not be much of a consolation.

The bigger picture

American foreign policy is now dominated by three vectors: the post-Cold War policy to prevent the resurgence of any rival power comparable to the USSR; the global war against terrorism, encompassing states that support terrorism, and states that have decided to acquire weapons of mass destruction; and the echoes and reverberations of the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan.

These three vectors converge at an intersection of the Chinese, Indian, Slavic and Arab worlds – what American strategists (but not yet tourist guidebooks) define as Southwest Asia.

As if any confirmation were needed, General Tommy Franks – who managed the war against the Taliban and will manage the war against Iraq – has stressed time and time again that American forces will stay in Afghanistan for a long time. There are roughly 8,000 American troops in Afghanistan at the moment. They remain practically all the time in cantonment mode, because they have no access to valuable information to guide them on the trail of Taliban and al-Qaeda operatives.

To make matters worse, in the Pashtun belt, the Americans are faced with a jihad against foreign invaders launched last August, a jihad with a strong rear-guard base in Pakistani territory. As Asia Times Online has reported from the spot, Pashtuns on both sides of the volatile and porous Pakistan-Afghanistan border are unanimously enraged by the US. Afghanistan remains totally insecure. Warlords rule the provinces. Hamid Karzai’s government is dominated by Uzbeks, Tajiks and, on a smaller scale, Hazaras. It is so fragile that Karzai, according to local jokes, cannot rule even over his own chair. And once again, predictably, Afghanistan has disappeared from the media radar.

The “smoking out” of Taliban and al-Qaeda and the capture of their chiefs and commanders has been a failure. The New Afghan War became a Pakistani war. President General Pervez Musharraf’s decision to totally align himself with the US was not much help to Washington. The best illustration is what happened in the Pakistani elections on October 10: the President’s party – the Muslim League Quaid-e-Azam – won in some places, but the religious parties united in the Muttahidda Majlis-e-Aman (MMA) won a massive victory in the ultra-sensitive Pashtun-dominated regions, the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and Balochistan.

The vice-president of the MMA, Qazi Hussain Ahmed, has said he wants to eliminate US air bases in Pakistan and wants the country out of the coalition to fight terrorism. The regions controlled by the MMA are bound to be subjected to Sharia (Islamic law), with no interference of Western culture. Militants in most of the groups composing the MMA – especially the young – are in fact basically the same people that fought under a Taliban or an al-Qaeda banner last year and are still engaging in anti-US jihad on both sides of the border.

As the US war on terror translates into a massively powerful war machine, the US has extended the battlefield way beyond Afghanistan and Pakistan. Now there are more air and ground forces in Diego Garcia – located in the heart of the Indian Ocean. There are at least 200 US “advisors” in Yemen, where, not by an accident, a precise hit from a drone smashed a vehicle transporting six alleged al-Qaeda members. There are US Special Forces in Djibouti, in the ultra-sensitive horn of Africa – where soon there will be a full American headquarters. The agenda is only superficially related to the pursuit of terrorist groups in north Africa. It is directly related to the replacement of American bases in Saudi Arabia, as it is almost certain (though not yet an irreversible decision) that the Saudis will not authorize their use in the upcoming Iraqi invasion.

What the US is really interested in is Southwest Asia: Iran and the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. The Bush administration and the Putin government are playing a very complex chess game. Putin is sacrificing positions now to gain a later advantage. The Americans have already attacked Russian interests on four sides. The US torpedoed the 1972 ABM treaty which forbids space missile defense. NATO expanded east to former Soviet satellites – and now incorporates three former Soviet republics: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. A crucial pipeline carrying a substantial part of the Caspian oil wealth runs from Baku in Azerbaijan to Ceyhan in Turkey, south of the Caucasus, thus totally bypassing Russia. And the US signed with Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan – and is negotiating with Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan – agreements to create American air bases in these former Soviet republics’ territories. These developments form the basis of a long-term American military presence in the heart of Southwest Asia.

The Bush administration may start its new war against Iraq – but the war in fact is against Iran. Iran is an official member of the Axis of Evil. Washington has conveniently forgotten that only one year ago, during the New Afghan War, Iran was actually an ally of the US as it helped, financed and armed the Hazaras, who were part of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance.

European diplomats suggest the heart of the matter is how the regime in Tehran is perceived in Washington. There may exist an understanding of the Iranian regime as a concert of multiple and clashing centers of decision. But Washington hawks have only two preoccupations. They know the regime is under the power of Velayat-e-Faqih – Islamic jurisprudence. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei directs the army, the security services, the Guardians of the Revolution, the paramilitary forces, the institutions of the judiciary, the imams who recite the Friday prayers all over the country, and also the media. So in the view of Washington hawks, President Khatami simply cannot reform the regime.

Strategically, Iran is important because – as Israeli intelligence has been alerting – Iran could have a nuclear bomb before 2005. Washington hawks figure that if the Shah’s regime wanted to become a nuclear power, it need be no different for the Islamic regime. The ayatollahs indeed fear total encirclement of Iran. They know that Iraq was trying to become nuclear, that Israel and Pakistan are nuclear powers, and that now the US is an unwanted neighbor.

European diplomats speculate that Iran could have three options: it could continue trying to acquire fissile material and missile launchers, while waiting for external threats to justify the pursuit of a nuclear arsenal. It could engage in a secret program to build nuclear weapons – just like Israel did. Or it could explode a nuclear device – just like India and Pakistan did. There’s one factor common to these three options: they are all anathema for Washington. For the US, it’s out of the question for Iran to become a very important regional power, andnor does the US want to become engaged in an automatic nuclear guarantee to the Gulf monarchies. So Iran risks sooner or later becoming a victim of the American doctrine of preemptive action.

The parallels with Afghanistan are striking. The US intervention in Afghanistan completely destabilized Pakistan – and a few dangerous after-effects are already noticeable. The US intervention in Iraq could completely destabilize Iran. It’s absolutely certain that Iran will not help mortal enemy Saddam Hussein. But the fact is the US already has a substantial military presence in the Gulf, Pakistan, Central Asia and Turkey. Add Iraq, and Iran will be encircled. The Islamic regime may inevitably react by forcefully aiding the anti-US jihadis in Afghanistan as well as the anti-Musharraf parties in Pakistan. Iran could also try to seduce Iraq’s 60 percent of Shi’ites to prevent the next Iraqi state from being a totally American concoction (as the Arab press is convinced it will be). It’s fair to imagine that under these circumstances the war against terrorism will acquire a totally new dimension.

The logic of war for the moment seems to be favoring American political, economic and strategic designs. Moscow’s interests seem to be threatened – in terms of loss of influence – and so seem Beijing’s in the longer run – in terms of access to energy sources. The potential for trouble is immense – but so is the potential for a peaceful Southwest Asia ruled by a new concert of powers: the US, China, Russia and India. This may not be an Axis of Good, as compared to the current Axis of Evil, but it could certainly be an Axis of the World.

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