Iraq Raids Add to Baggage on Powell’s Mideast Tour


Colin L. Powell leaves today for a whirlwind tour of the Middle East and Europe, but the tenor of his first overseas trip as secretary of State has been transformed as a result of the U.S.-British airstrike on Iraq last week.

The secretary may well find that the honeymoon for the Bush administration on foreign policy is already over--at least when it comes to the Mideast, U.S. analysts and Mideast experts say.

Powell is more likely to find himself on the defensive, explaining the punitive raid on targets near Baghdad rather than defining a streamlined policy on Iraq that is designed to lift economic sanctions but keep arms control in place.


“We’ve lost control of our own message,” acknowledged a U.S. official who is a Middle East specialist.

“Powell will find himself being the defense attorney rather than the prosecutor in the case of Iraq,” an Arab envoy said.

The Bush administration also has its work cut out in cobbling together a new Iraq policy with countries well beyond the region. At his first news conference since taking office, President Bush expressed concern Thursday that China is reportedly helping the regime of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein improve its air defense system in violation of United Nations sanctions.

“It’s troubling that they would be involved in helping Iraq develop a system that will endanger our pilots,” Bush said. U.S. concern has reached the point that the White House is sending “an appropriate response” to the Chinese, he said. Pentagon officials have said that Chinese workers are laying fiber-optic cables to link Iraqi radars with antimissile sites.

China, one of the five permanent members of the Security Council, which crafts U.N. resolutions on Iraq, has long favored easing or eliminating sanctions against Baghdad. But this is the first case of an alleged major violation by Beijing.

In the Mideast, the depth of the challenge Powell faces is reflected in Saudi Arabia, the main base of support for the U.S. military during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. In a joint communique with Syria on Tuesday after talks in Damascus, the Syrian capital, Saudi Arabia denounced the airstrike and expressed “anxiety over the recent escalation.”


The raid was ill timed, the communique said, because of impending consultations at an Arab summit in Jordan designed to find ways to balance regional security with the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Iraq.

Syria, which has been feuding with Iraq for two decades, now wants to bring Baghdad back into the Arab fold.

“We are exerting all efforts, within the framework of international legitimacy, to lift all economic sanctions imposed on Iraq and to solve all problems and negative consequences that resulted from Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait,” Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Shareh told the Saudis, as quoted in the Syrian press.

Syria contributed troops to the Gulf War coalition, a step viewed as critical to conferring legitimacy on Operation Desert Storm in Arab eyes. But in a sign of the changing times, Damascus late last year reopened a pipeline to Iraq that had been closed even before the Gulf War and began illegally importing up to 150,000 barrels a day of Iraqi oil in violation of U.N. sanctions, according to U.S. officials and Mideast diplomats.

The exports reportedly generate about $2 million a day for Hussein’s regime.

Through a simplified approach, the Bush administration hopes to stop the growing sanctions slippage by countries such as China and Syria. “Many nations in that part of the world aren’t adhering to the sanctions policy that had been in place. And, as a result, a lot of goods are heading into Iraq that were not supposed to,” Bush said Thursday.

Powell will visit Syria and Saudi Arabia to try to win their support for a streamlined version of sanctions. “Good sanctions policy is one where the United States is able to build a coalition around the strategy,” Bush said.


Powell will also visit Jordan, Egypt, Israel and the Palestinian territories. All but Israel have witnessed some bursts of opposition to the U.S.-British raid over the past week--from government officials, in the media or in the streets--that may complicate Powell’s first visit to the region as secretary of State.

U.S. officials insist that gulf countries, particularly, have not been as critical in private communications.

“The expression of concern that I received over the weekend from various Arab nations in the region, frankly, was fairly moderate,” Powell told reporters Tuesday. “There were expressions of distress, there were some demonstrations in the streets, but overall I think the response was fairly moderate.”

Yet even in the United States, Mideast specialists predict that the strike has altered the agenda as well as the perception of the administration after only a month in office.

“At the start, Powell seemed to want to set a new tone,” said Shibley Telhami, a University of Maryland expert on the Middle East. “He made moderate statements on Iraq at the U.N. and seemed interested in consensus-building. But immediately after the airstrike, the Bush administration began to suffer from what it accused the Clinton administration of: being isolated and not consulting. This has left people more confused--and angry--than before.”

The continuing airstrikes against Iraq may further fuel anger, experts predict. On Thursday, U.S. and British warplanes again attacked Iraqi air defenses in the country’s northern “no-fly” zone, which is patrolled to prevent Iraq from using warplanes against its own people.


U.S. officials are concerned that Iraq may escalate the number of attacks on Western warplanes in order to provoke bigger or more frequent retaliation--and in turn make the new Bush administration appear more aggressive.

Iraqi officials seemed almost cocky about their ability to defy yet another U.S. administration. Deputy Prime Minister Tarik Aziz, Iraq’s spokesman to the outside world, said Thursday that U.S. policy is increasingly “isolated and unreasonable.”

“Only Canada and Israel have supported this aggression. This is an important development,” he told reporters after meeting ultranationalist Russian lawmaker Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky. “In 1999 and 2000, openness on Iraq has increased and its political, economic and trade relations have improved with many countries. So this new policy will not weaken Iraq.”