Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

The Die is Cast

War is set to begin, but no one can predict the consequences it will unleash.
By Julie Flint

Diplomacy has run its course. By Wednesday night, the United States and Britain could find themselves at war with a regime they claim retains huge destructive power. The Arab world, for its part, will find itself on the brink of an era in which the United States has made no secret of its intention of re-writing the political map of the Middle East as much in the interests of Israel as in its own.


In an ultimatum issued on Monday night, US President George Bush gave Iraqi President Saddam Hussein 48 hours to leave Iraq or be overthrown by force. Saddam, who had earlier threatened to carry any war far outside Iraq's own borders, refused.


In 1990, the United States and Britain went to war against Iraq - not, then, against Saddam Hussein personally - with the backing of the United Nations and a broad spectrum of coalition partners including a number of Arabs states. In 2003, barring a handful of Australian troops, they will be on their own, without the blessing of the UN Security Council, the European Union or NATO and without a single soldier from the Arab or Muslim worlds.


Arab analysts are predicting dire consequences for the region - from a descent into civil war inside Iraq to new disaster for Palestinians at the hands of America's protégé, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.


Under cover of a war that has not even begun, Israel has already begun racheting up its military escalation in the Occupied Territories - targeting not only the military wing of Hamas, but also its political leaders. In the last month alone, more than 80 Palestinians have been killed, mainly in the Gaza Strip, and some 2,000 detained. With 8,000 Palestinian cadres arrested and jailed in the last 12 months, the least Arabs expect now is the "political transfer" - or deportation - of Palestinian leaders including President Yasser Arafat; the most, a mass expulsion like that of 1948.


For the West, one immediate consequence of war is that no American - and probably no Briton - can be sure of being safe anywhere in the world. That much has been made clear not only by Saddam Hussein, who has spoken of worldwide revenge by sea, land and air, but also, and arguably more significantly, by leading scholars of the Islamic world.


In a statement published in Egyptian newspapers on March 10, Islamic scholars at Egypt's Al-Azhar University called on Arabs and Muslims all across the world to be ready to defend themselves and their faith. "According to Islamic law," they said, "jihad - holy war - becomes a duty for every male and female Muslim if the enemy steps on Muslim land."


Even before war against Iraq has been joined, commentators in the West and in Israel are debating which country deserves the next "helping hand" towards democracy from those who claim to speak in its name: George Bush and Tony Blair. Some say Iran; others Syria and Lebanon. Almost no-one in the Arab world believes that Iraq will be the end of it.


The war it supports, and has demanded for the better part of a decade, is the greatest gamble in a long series of gambles for the US-backed Iraqi opposition headed by such longtime opponents of Saddam Hussein as Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani and Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmad Chalabi - men now widely reviled by Arabs, and by opponents of war, as American "stooges".


They will not only be blamed for civilian casualties in Iraq. Having fought for military action to remove Saddam, they have in recent weeks been fighting to change American plans to run Iraq as a military protectorate with only the most minimal participation from Iraqis themselves.


On the eve of war, returning from last minute talks in Washington, a senior official in the autonomous Kurdish government in northern Iraq told IWPR the opposition had received reassurances that the US would hand over power to an "interim national authority" in a gradual manner, starting within weeks of Saddam's death or departure.


Barham Salih, prime minister in Suleimaniya, said the national authority would not be composed exclusively of opposition leaders like Barzani and Chalabi who were nominated to a six-man leadership during a US-monitored meeting in northern Iraq last month.


"There will be new dynamics," he said. "We will have to recalibrate a lot of things after liberation."


Julie Flint, a long-time correspondent from the Middle East and a former IWPR trustee, is coordinating editor of the Iraqi Crisis Report.