by Patrick Goodenough

A BBC ASSIGNMENT programme aired last month exposed once again the unpalatable face of Saddam Hussein - his campaign of terror abroad, cruelty against opponents and minorities at home, and, most ominously, his advanced plans to wage non-conventional warfare.

The most grisly footage in the feature SADDAM'S REVENGE showed members of the elite Saddam Fedayeen brigade ripping to pieces live wolves and devouring their still-warm flesh in a bloody orgy worthy of Stephen King. But more shocking even than that was the revelation that Saddam had fooled UN inspectors and successfully hidden from the outside world the alarming growth of his gas and germ warfare programme since the Gulf War.

Anthrax, botulism and the lethal nerve gas, VX, are on Saddam's menu. (Exposure to the skin of a tiny quantity of VX, as Israeli Defence Minister Yitzhak Mordechai warned recently, can kill within seconds. Syria is developing the same unlovely substance, with the help of Russian scientists, according to Mordechai. The manufacture, stockpiling and use of chemical and biological weapons are outlawed by international convention.)

When Arab foreign ministers met in Cairo on September 15, "moving forward the peace process in the face of the Israeli obstinacy" topped the agenda. Despite the heightened tensions in the Gulf at the time - the US had launched missile strikes on Iraqi targets just a fortnight earlier - Saddam's brutality was neither discussed, nor condemned. On the contrary, a communiqué issued afterwards criticised "the interference of others in Iraq's internal affairs". Countries such as Egypt are upgrading their diplomatic relations with Baghdad to full ambassadorial level for the first time since the Gulf War.

Middle Eastern regimes' reluctance to tackle dictators within the Arab family no longer surprises us (see also page 8). But with Saddam's crimes against humanity arguably outdoing any since those perpetrated by Stalin, the West's unwillingness to take concrete steps against him is harder to swallow.

A CIA plot to sponsor a dissident force based in the Kurdish safe haven was blown out the water by Iraqi intelligence infiltration, and the subsequent military invasion of the region. As the American agents scattered, the rebels left behind, along with other alleged anti-Saddam conspirators, faced his wrath.

"Ruthlessly the Iraqi dictator arrested dozens of these plotters," ran one report, "tortured them and massacred those who survived brutalities such as being forced to rape each other. Those no longer able to obey were slowly mutilated before dying."

Aside from the CIA's abortive efforts, two attempts by the US armed forces to punish him for aggression, in 1990 and 1996, also failed miserably. It is generally accepted today that Saddam is stronger than ever.

WRITING in NEWSWEEK in September, former US national-security advisor Brent Scowcroft defended the Bush administration's decision not to destroy Saddam's regime when it had the chance. Doing so would have left the US with the choice of either occupying Iraq, or "creating a gaping power vacuum in the Persian Gulf for Iran to fill".

But has the alternative policy - "dual containment" - worked? Have US attempts to curb Iraq and Iran militarily succeeded in the aim of convincing both - and other would-be Middle East belligerents - that they no longer have a war option? Iraq, judging from the BBC programme, is more dangerous than ever. If evidence before the Iranian dissident murder trial in Berlin, and November's highly critical UN Human Rights Commission report on Iran (see page 2) are anything to go by, it appears Iran too continues to perpetrate terrorism abroad and abuse human rights at home. And other despots in the region, like those in Damascus and Gaza, do not appear to have abandoned the idea of playing the violence card.

Scowcroft goes on to predict that future policy on Iraq "is likely to share the same objectives as the one we have followed since the end of the Gulf War: relegating Saddam to the category of a nuisance and preventing him from re-emerging as a threat to his neighbours or our vital interests".

But with his improved chemical weapons capacity and delivery systems, Saddam without doubt has already re-emerged as "a threat to his neighbours" and to America's "vital interests". If Washington indeed regards him as "a nuisance", rather than as an depraved and dangerous enemy, then this more than anything else highlights the flaws in US Gulf policy.

If Bill Clinton truly wants to be remembered as a president who acted to curb the aggression he so often rails against, a serious reassessment of his handling of Iraq is required. Relieving the pressure on Saddam is not sending the right message.

Unfortunately, it seems as though easing up on Iraq is precisely what Clinton has inmind, if a reported, secret meeting between senior US diplomat Robert Pelletreau and Saddam's son Qusay in Ankara, Turkey on September 18 is anything to go by. According to European diplomatic sources quoted by the Paris-based newspaper AL-WATAN AL-ARABI (October 4), the two discussed stepping up US-Iraqi cooperation. Pelletreau allegedly offered improved relations, on condition Iraq allowed the US at least two military bases on its territory, and collaborated in containing and isolating Iran.

Qusay reportedly said Iraq would expect in return that Washington agree to strengthen the Baghdad regime rather than seek to topple it. Whether a deal was in fact made is unclear, but it is noteworthy that this bartering was taking place just two weeks after US missile strikes against Iraqi targets.

Granted, leaving Saddam in power may hold the advantage of preventing an unknown - and possibly more perilous - situation developing in the Gulf. But in the process, both justice and the innocent suffer.

The man known as the Butcher of Baghdad deserves nothing less than to be overthrown, and put on trial before an international tribunal for his crimes against mankind - not least of all the attempted genocide by poisoning of the Marsh Arabs, the use of gas warfare on Iranians and Kurds, and the amputation of body parts of suspected dissidents in the Iraqi military.

The Bosnian killers wanted by the war crimes tribunal in The Hague simply aren't in the same league.

"Now that the petro-dollars are about to flow again into Saddam's coffers, there will no doubt be new stirrings among those eager to do business with him at any price, like France, Germany and some British companies. No-one begrudges the Iraqi people a little relief from their misery - if they get it - but neither should anyone be surprised if Saddam finds some way to divert the flood of dollars back to the ... mass-destruction industry."
Editorial, The Jerusalem Post, December 12

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