Revisiting the War that Changed West Asia Forever

The death of Tariq Aziz, articulate Foreign Minister of the Saddam Hussein regime, brings the curtains down on a story that goes back to 1990

A flood of memories overwhelmed me when the New York Times carried a two decade-old photograph of Tariq Aziz in intent conversation with me along with its obituary last month of Saddam Hussein’s iconic Foreign Minister. I was president of the UN Security Council at the time. That picture of us in the council’s chamber transported me back to those hectic days of 1991-92 when India was a member of that crucial body and the burden of decision-making fell equally on our shoulders.

Iraq invaded Kuwait in the early hours of August 2, 1990. Saddam badly miscalculated in embarking on his misadventure. He misinterpreted US Ambassador April Glaspie’s comment that America did not wish to get involved in intra-Arab disputes as a green signal for his plans to invade Kuwait. His timing was bad. The Cold War was over by the end of 1989, and although the Soviet Union continued to  survive as such until the end of 1991, he could no longer count on Soviet support in vetoing any resolution against his action. He underestimated America’s resolve to ‘use all necessary’ means to undo his aggression, including its huge effort in organising a coalition of like-minded  countries, in which some Arab states took part, and deploying tens of thousands of its troops equipped with the latest killer technologies.

The Security Council adopted Resolution 678 on November 29, 1990. It had only 5 brief paragraphs but these were fully exploited by its sponsors well beyond what the other members thought what they were approving. Authorising member states of the UN “to use all necessary means” to roll back Iraq’s aggression as well as to “restore international peace and stability in the area” –  these words were misused by the ‘coalition’ to inflict horrendous damage on Iraq’s infrastructure. (Two decades later, Resolution 1973 concerning Libya was similarly misused by the same group of countries.) Yemen and Cuba voted against the resolution whereupon the American ambassador told his Yemeni counterpart that it would be a most expensive vote for Yemen! India did not have to vote on that resolution since we came onto the Council on January 1, 1991.

When India ‘deplored’, wouldn’t condemn

This was perhaps just as well, as India had been very careful in not condemning Saddam’s aggression. We simply refused to use the word ‘condemn’. We would say ‘deplore’ or ‘strongly deplore’, or ‘we do not condone’, and so on. I had to make a statement in  the nonaligned group on the Iraqi action. All the members condemned Saddam’s action. I had made my view clear to the ministry to the effect that we should join in the condemnation, since, first, what Saddam had done was patently wrong, and second, because our interests in the Gulf Cooperation Council countries far outweighed whatever interests we had in Iraq. The government did not agree with me and sent me a draft statement for me to read out. I suggested a few amendments but the MEA rejected them. For the first and only time during my over six years as PR, I read out a speech sent by the ministry.

When IK Gujral, who was External Affairs Minister, came to New York for the General Assembly session – all this was before we joined the Security Council on January 1, 1991 – I arranged a meeting for him with the foreign minister of Kuwait. Gujral told Sheikh Sabah that ‘India was fully with Kuwait and that we did not condone what Saddam had done’.  The Kuwaiti FM said his country wanted only one thing, namely, that India should condemn the action. Gujral told him: ‘Excellency, we deeply deplore Saddam’s action (we did not even refer to it as aggression), and we are 110 % with Kuwait.’ The Kuwaiti FM replied: ‘Excellency, 100 % would do, we do not want anything else, we only want the great nation of India to condemn.’ Gujral did not oblige, but later told me he did not realise that the word ‘condemn’ was so important for the Kuwaitis.

Of course, in the immediate aftermath of the Iraqi invasion, several thousand Indians were trapped  in Kuwait and the government of the day had to give high priority to getting them out. The UN sanctions did not permit any dealings between member states and the Baghdad regime which was in control in Kuwait. The Council had set up a committee, called the sanctions committee to monitor compliance with its resolutions which was competent to grant exemptions in deserving cases. I was asked by the MEA to approach the sanctions committee to permit us to send a ship to bring our nationals out. I gave a speech, which was later described as the ‘speech that launched one ship’. The government sent INS Vishwamitra to Kuwait and brought our people back. Incidentally, Gujral went to Kuwait and brought back several Indians; he was later criticised for rescuing only affluent members of the community. He also went to Baghdad and the photograph showing him in a bear hug with Saddam was splashed all over the world, not always in a flattering way.

The war and after

Resolution 678 had given Iraq a grace period of 45 days to comply with its demands; this was scheduled to expire on January 15. Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar made a last-minute and ultimately futile effort to persuade Saddam to withdraw. The Soviets also tried a last ditch diplomatic effort to avoid war. Tariq Aziz came to New York to plead his boss’s case. Nothing helped. Saddam continued to be skeptical about the US willingness to use massive force; everyone talked of America not having the stomach for ‘body bags’ as promised’ by Saddam Hussein. This also happened to be the assessment of the Ministry of External Affairs, based primarily on the reports of the Indian embassy in Baghdad.

American ‘smart bombs’ started to rain on Baghdad in the early hours of 16 January, 1991. The UN resolution required the ‘coalition’ to keep the Council informed of its actions, but it did nothing of the sort. The rest of the members of the UNSC came to depend entirely on CNN reportage from Baghdad. Very soon, CNN came to be called the 16th member of the Security Council!

Saddam used to boast that the US would have to fight ‘the mother of all wars’ in Iraq but he was quickly defeated. On April 3, 1991, the UNSC adopted Resolution 687, ’the mother of all resolutions’; it had as many as 34 operative paragraphs, besides pages of preambular ones. India voted in favour, though some in the MEA would have preferred us to abstain. For some reason which was never explained to my satisfaction, the MEA was most reluctant to take an anti-Iraq position. Saddam was regarded as a ‘friend’, even though at least the professionals ought to have known that there is no  such thing as  a permanent ‘friend’ in diplomacy. Of course, Resolution 687 was unpalatable to us because it set up an arbitration procedure whose verdict on the alignment of the Iraq-Kuwait boundary was binding on the two sides. We saw a parallel with Kashmir.

Tariq Aziz’s visits to New York became more frequent after the adoption of Resolution 687, which had set up a highly technical mechanism to identify and destroy whatever programmes Iraq had to develop and produce weapons of mass destruction. Since every thing that the Security Council does has a political angle, the inspection regime became highly controversial. Iraq was continually accused of not cooperating with UN monitors and attempting to conceal its programmes. Often this was the case, but not always. Aziz came to the nonaligned caucus in the Council in the hope that we would argue Iraq’s case and defend it, which we did whenever we felt right about it. He was always articulate and reasonably persuasive. He expected India to support him and his country, which we did during the informal consultations. However, since what Saddam had done was totally unacceptable and he had not shown any sign of regret, it was not possible, nor indeed desirable, to give Iraq the benefit of doubt all the time.

The draconian sanctions imposed by the Council caused intolerable suffering to the people of Iraq. While Saddam continued to live comfortably in his palaces, there were numerous reports, by NGOs as well as by UN agencies, detailing the suffering and deprivation faced by the Iraqi people, mainly by women, children and the elderly. The western members were not too sympathetic and resisted attempts by the nonaligned group to introduce amendments to provide more relief.

Tussle over oil for food

The humanitarian situation attracted wide attention, including from the Western media, and in response to persistent efforts by the nonaligned caucus, the US and others finally agreed to do something. An elaborate mechanism was drawn up under the ‘Oil for Food’ programme to deal with the humanitarian crisis. The underlying argument was that Iraq was a rich country and could and must pay for the humanitarian supplies that would be sent by the international community. A complex machinery was devised to distribute the supplies to ensure that they reached the intended beneficiaries and not the Iraqi security forces. Iraq would be allowed to export a limited amount of oil under UN appointed supervisors and the amount would be deposited in an escrow account. The humanitarian supplies would then be paid for from that escrow account.

A steering committee was established to oversee the implementation of the ‘oil for food’ programme  by Secretary General Boutros Boutros Ghali, who made me its chairman. Two persons called me most often, the US ambassador Madeleine Albright and Tariq Aziz and I had to be firm with both of them. Who should monitor the export of oil? The quantities and the destinations had to be watched. After some internal discussion and with the SG’s concurrence, the contract was given to Lloyds of London. The French asked that the escrow account be opened with the French bank BNP, but Aziz would not agree since the French position was as tough as the American one The selection of the bank became a tricky issue. The Americans wanted an American bank. Tariq Aziz protested vehemently and suggested a Swiss bank to which Albright would not agree on the ground that ‘Saddam had an account in Geneva’. Finally, I selected Deutsche Bank in consultation with the SG; it had the best rating. Tariq Aziz had no problem with it.

Aziz, as I have mentioned above, was very articulate and did an excellent job of defending a bad case. I could see, as did many others, that he himself was not convinced of his arguments on some occasions, but he had absolutely no discretionary powers of any kind. He was a Christian and a survivor in Iraq politics, but also a hostage  since his wife and family were in Baghdad and the possibility of his boss harming his family must have always weighed on his mind. To some extent I might have earned his respect and perhaps his trust too, but we were never friends; diplomacy does not permit the luxury of friendship. Even the new regime in Iraq, installed by the US following the second Gulf War in 2003, seemed to have tacitly agreed that Tariq Aziz did not have much to do with Saddam’s atrocities. Though a special tribunal imposed the death penalty on him, the man who was the public face of his country for more than a decade was allowed to die a natural death.

The writer is a former Permanent Representative of India to the United Nations