Despite the seizure of nuclear weapons triggers from a plane bound for Baghdad, the State Department is trying to minimize damage to the U.S.-Iraq relationship by toning down official government criticism of President Saddam Hussein’s regime.
A Pentagon official said Friday that the State Department--alone among U.S. agencies--opposed the elaborate sting that resulted in the arrest of four Iraqis and the export manager of a London company on charges of trying to smuggle 40 of the devices to Iraq.
The official said State Department representatives wanted to work quietly to discourage Iraq from trying to produce nuclear weapons without creating a public furor by allowing the Iraqi representatives to buy the devices and then arresting them.
Moreover, the State Department recently pressured the Voice of America to tone down a broadcast editorial accusing Hussein of using police-state methods to defend his regime.
A spokesman for the U.S. Information Agency, the VOA’s parent organization, said that John Kelly, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern and South Asian affairs, complained about the editorial during a State Department staff meeting. The spokesman said the USIA representative at the meeting promised to look into the matter.
“We decided we were not happy with the editorial,” the spokesman said. He said that the order to avoid similar editorials in the future was made by the USIA, a branch of the State Department.
A State Department official confirmed that Hussein was “upset with something said in a VOA editorial.” He said the matter was handled by the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad.
The official said the first rule of diplomacy is to avoid needless friction and that Iraq is being treated no differently than any other country.
“It is not the State Department way to do our finger-pointing in public, except for countries like Libya and Iran that have track records of targeting American interests abroad,” the official said.
Nevertheless, other U.S. agencies seem less reticent about criticizing Iraq.
For instance, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney cited Iraq’s nuclear program Friday as a reason to continue the “Star Wars” missile defense plan despite warming U.S.-Soviet relations.
“Just this week, we witnessed Iraq . . . trying to smuggle 40 detonation devices that would be used in a nuclear weapon,” Cheney said in a speech to the Assn. of American Publishers.
“While certainly today Iraq does not represent a threat directly to the United States, down the road there’s every reason to expect any number of nations to have that (nuclear) capability,” he said.
Therefore, he reasoned, the United States needs a missile defense system for protection against renegade nuclear powers, even if the danger of an attack by the Soviet Union is greatly reduced.
U.S. relations with Iraq improved sharply during Baghdad’s war with Iran. The U.S. government tilted toward Iraq in that conflict, primarily because American policy-makers believed that an Iranian victory would destabilize the entire Middle East.
The U.S. government kept a tight lid on criticism of Iraq during the war to avoid damaging Baghdad’s military effort.