Wed, May 14, 2003 - Page 9 News List

US, British role in the Mideast becoming increasingly muddied

The Bush administration has achieved its goal of destroying Saddam's regime, but it has failed to prove that Iraq's leaders had posed a clear and present danger

By Alistair Lyon  /  REUTERS , LONDON

A month after former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein's downfall, opinions divide sharply over how far the US and Britain have achieved their war aims in Iraq, and even though few argue that the occupation forces owe the country something in exchange for what it destroyed, there is great contention over what the country owes the coalition for "liberation."

Formally, the two countries acted to rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction they said it was concealing in defiance of the UN. They also justified the invasion by saying it toppled a cruel dictator and struck a blow in the war on terror.

Critics note that US and British forces have yet to find any compelling evidence of chemical or biological weapons, or of Iraqi links to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network.

They say the jury remains out on President George W. Bush's promise to bring freedom and democracy to the Iraqi people, now plagued by postwar looting, insecurity and other hardships.

US proposals to phase out UN sanctions and give the world body only a minimal role in rebuilding Iraq -- and none at all in verifying whether it has banned weapons -- bolster the view that America is determined to call all the shots.

Mustafa Alani, an Iraqi analyst at London's Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), said the occupying powers were obliged to "repair the china they broke" and should focus first on restoring services, salaries and personal security to Iraqis.

"No one regrets Saddam's removal, but unless the Americans do these things, some Iraqis might begin to," he said.

Tensions with the US military have prompted many Iraqis to take a "thank you and goodbye" attitude to their "liberators," sharpening a US dilemma over how long troops should stay.

"The goal of nation-building is not universally shared within the US administration," noted Steven Simon, senior analyst specializing in the Middle East at RAND, a nonprofit research organization in Washington.

"People rightly see a paradox that by staying in Iraq long enough to nourish true democracy, the United States may also be staying long enough to incur the wrath of those who believe it wants to occupy [Iraq] and appropriate Iraqi and Arab riches," he said.

Simon said the Bush administration was convinced that the Iraq war had solved a big problem and could reshape the region.

"They believe Saddam's defeat will pave the way for further political reforms in the Middle East and prepare the ground for an equitable settlement between Israel and the Palestinians," he said.

A report by the International Crisis Group think tank said the Iraq war had given America greater regional influence and "added reason to demonstrate that it can exercise its power even-handedly," something its war ally Britain was pushing for.

"This should not erase the reasons for skepticism," the report said, citing the forthcoming US presidential election campaign and opposition even within the US to the peace "road map" promoted by a quartet of foreign mediators.

Dan Plesch, also at RUSI, said the Bush administration had achieved its goal of destroying Saddam's rule, even if it had failed to prove that Iraq had posed a clear and present danger.

"The principal aim was to declare a victory in the war on terror and take Saddam off the American domestic agenda," he said, arguing that it was an earlier failure to catch bin Laden that had prompted Bush to substitute Saddam as the main target.

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