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Middle East needs conference on security


Clearly Saddam Hussein, who has repeatedly used chemical weapons against Iran and even against his own people in the gas attack on Kurdish civilians at Halabja in 1988, cannot be allowed to keep weapons of mass destruction.

But bombing Iraq has not solved that problem, because these weapons can be hidden in very small areas. An occupation of Iraq with ground troops might be able to find and destroy concealed weapons and their factories, but that might require an estimated 2 million troops -- a force equal to 10 percent of Iraq’s population -- and there is not enough support for this among the United States and its allies.

After the bombing campaign, further inspections now seem impossible. A rise in fundamentalism among Iraq’s neighbors could threaten some regimes. Terrorism may increase. Cooperation between Russia and China, induced by the expansion of NATO and closer U.S.-Japanese military cooperation, may increase, perhaps leading to a new military alliance that could de facto include Iraq and Iran and produce a new standoff with the Western powers.

Is there a better approach?

A decisive turning point that ultimately led to the end of the Cold War was the Helsinki Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe from 1973 to ’75, in which all parties of the East-West conflict were invited to the table and all issues were put on the table with enough time to address them in depth. This made tradeoffs possible. A country making a concession on one issue won something more valuable to it on another issue or something from another country. This ensured that everyone gained something.

A similar conference on security and cooperation in the Middle East could address not only the problem of Iraq but also the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians and the Kurdish issue. A Palestinian state and Kurdish autonomy or independence should not be excluded as options. A comprehensive dialogue, in which all parties are heard, is needed. Refusing to give others a voice is a sign of weakness, not strength.

It would be preferable that such a conference be chaired by someone from the region, for example Jordan’s King Hussein and his brother.

A nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East, with permanent and effective verification, should be high on the agenda. Strict implementation of the treaties banning biological and chemical weapons must be sought. The United Nations in cooperation with the Arab League could organize a major U.N. peacekeeping operation in the area with several hundred thousand troops stationed on either side of critical borders. Better ways to monitor and protect human rights in the whole region and to reduce gross economic inequality need to be found.

The economic sanctions against Iraq, which by UNICEF estimates have so far caused over a million deaths, mainly among children, must be reconsidered. Any sanctions deemed necessary to punish treaty violations should not be directed against ordinary citizens but against the ruling elites, by blocking arms imports, freezing foreign bank accounts and restricting air travel.

One of the best ways to get successful negotiations started may be to focus initially on areas of mutual benefit. Such approaches helped end the century-old hostility between Germany and France after World War II and brought a thaw in the tense U.S.-China relations in the early 1970s.

Issues of common concern to all Middle Eastern countries include the optimal management of scarce water resources and oil policy. A Middle East common market, with Israel as a full member, should be studied and negotiated.

Citizen to citizen contacts, as they are now taking place between Iranians and Iraqis, without supervision from governments, should be promoted. Such personal contacts played an important role in bringing about an end to the Cold War. They finally made Gorbachev’s reforms possible and led to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Tyrannical regimes ultimately dig their own graves. A patient approach to prevent Iraq from committing further aggression against its neighbors, measures to alleviate poverty and opening lines of communication among people at all levels are more effective ways to bring a solution to the danger of Saddam Hussein than a bombing campaign that polarizes the region.

Johan Galtung, a professor of peace studies at several universities, is director of TRANSCEND, a peace and development network. Dietrich Fischer, a professor at Pace University, is codirector of TRANSCEND.

National Catholic Reporter, February 5, 1999