30 MARCH 2002, Page 16


Neil Clark says that the agitation against

Saddam shows there are no limits to the stupidity of liberal imperialism

THEY are at it again. Despite the unfinished business in Afghanistan, the Iraqiphobes have lost little time in trying to whip up support for their long-desired cluster-bombing of Baghdad — or nuclear bombing, if our 'humanitarian' Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon is to have his way.

In the countdown to military action we must brace ourselves for the usual round of Saddam scare stories which inevitably signal that an attack on Iraq is imminent. Super-guns, killer agents and anthrax in our reservoirs: whatever it is, rest assured that those dastardly Iraqis will be planning it in the weeks and months ahead.

Before the B52s set off and the propaganda war goes into overdrive, it is surely worth considering a little more closely why on earth all this is happening. Why is a 'regime change' in Baghdad considered so desirable, even at the extent of risking a major Middle East war ?

Not even the most hardline hawks now bother to argue that Iraq has to be attacked because it was somehow behind the events of 11 September. Instead the Iraqiphobes have fallen back on their favourite casusbelli: Iraq has to be dealt with because it possesses weapons of mass destruction that threaten not only the Middle East but also the whole of Western civilisation.

'Iraq has a whole cocktail cabinet of chemical and nerve agents,' claimed the ubiquitous former UN weapons inspector Richard Butler in a recent interview, despite not having set foot in the country for more than three years. Butler's allegations differ quite radically from those of his erstwhile fellow-inspector Scott Ritter, who rates the Iraqi threat as 'zero'. The British government's dismissive reaction to the Iraqi's recent offer of immediate access to a British weapons inspection team only adds to the suspicion that the lraqiphobes would rather bomb first than see Ritter's analysis confirmed.

With the powerful interests ranged against it, it is of little surprise that Iraq struggles to get a fair hearing. Opec members are desperate to see Iraqi oil reserves, the second biggest in the world, stay off the world market indefinitely. Yet strong reasons exist why Britain, far from bowing to such interests, should instead be radically rethinking its policy towards Iraq. The moral argument that in lifting sanctions we would be saving the lives of about 600 children a month is surely reason enough. But even leaving this aside, there are sound realpolitik reasons why Britain should change course.

Iraq is a country with umbilical links to Britain. It was Britain who helped free the peoples of Mesopotamia from the Ottoman yoke. and Britain who gave the country its modern name. The Baghdad funeral of the traveller Gertrude Bell, who had dedicated her life to the creation of an independent Iraq, was attended by thousands. Generations of Iraqi politicians, government officials and civil servants have been educated in Britain, and for years English was the compulsory foreign language for all Iraqi university students. These factors put Britain in pole position when it came to developing commercial interests in Iraq, something successive trade secretaries, up to and including Alan Clark, were not slow to exploit. Weapons sales were admittedly part of the trade, but so too were medical supplies, school and university textbooks, and hospital equipment.

Ten years of slavishly following the Washington line on Iraq has seen all these advantages vanish. Britain is now universally despised in Iraq, and it is the French and the Russians who are the first in the queue for reconstruction rights and oil concessions. Unless Britain changes course quickly, the enormous commercial opportunities in helping to exploit the second largest oil reserves in the world will be gone for ever.

Broader still, by restoring diplomatic links with Baghdad, Britain would be acknowledging at long last the key role that Ba'athist governments have to play in Middle East security as a bulwark against Islamic fundamentalism. Like it or not, the most likely alternative to the secular regimes of Assad in Syria and Saddam in Iraq would be militant Islamic ones. For all its lack of 'Western freedoms', Iraq has had for the last 20 years a practising Christian as its deputy prime minister. In no other Islamic country in the region has a nonMuslim risen to such prominence. If Lady Thatcher sincerely believes militant Islam to be the 'new Bolshevism', then she has chosen a rather strange target in Iraq.

While certain sections of the Labour party seem to understand the need to build new relationships with Syria and Iraq, the Conservative party seems stuck in a 'firm action' mindset. 'What has happened to Conservative England's distrust of America?' Matthew Parris asked in these pages a few weeks ago. He was right to do so. Eleven years ago, in the parliamentary debate before the Gulf war, arguably the most powerful and impassioned speech against military action was made by a Conservative, the former Foreign Office minister Lord Gilmour of Craigmillar. Today, the Tory benches chime the 'Bomb, bomb, bomb' mantra in unison. 'How can any intelligent person be expected to believe that a country of 19 million people, mostly impoverished desert dwellers, poses a threat to world peace?' asked the arch-Tory sceptic Auberon Waugh in 1998. On Waugh's analysis, one can only conclude there to he a singular lack of intelligence on both government and opposition front benches.

Exasperating as the present Blair/Duncan Smith axis may be, the prize for the most crackpot reason to attack Iraq must go to a 'liberal', Geraldine Brooks, the former Middle East correspondent for the Wall Street Journal. Not even bothering to claim that Iraq threatens world peace or has any links with al-Qa'eda, Ms Brooks argues that the country should nonetheless be bombed 'for the sake of the Iraqi people', to help free them from the 'bleak and terrible regime of Saddam Hussein'. It really does seem that modern humanitarian imperialism knows no limits. Today Baghdad, tomorrow Beijing? We await Ms Brooks's call.

After ten years of the most savage economic embargo of modern times — not to mention the sporadic bombing raids to enforce the absurd no-fly zones — it is time to say enough is enough. The Iraqis, a proud and hospitable people, have surely paid too high a price for the crimes of their leader. Let us hear no more of the 'weapons of mass destruction' nonsense, no more of sanctions, and certainly no more of planned bombing campaigns, The best way to ensure peace throughout the whole region, for Arab, Christian and Jew alike, is to welcome Iraq back, unconditionally, into the international community. Britain, whether on grounds of morality, or pure self-interest, should lead the way.