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Washington shouldn't ignore Iraq, a future key player

The Mideast: Don't Forget Iran and Iraq

THE Bush administration's lack of forward strategic planning is evident in its attitude toward Iraq. For years Washington ``tilted'' toward Baghdad during the bloody Iran-Iraq war and risked American lives to protect oil tankers belonging to Kuwait, Iraq's closest ally. Yet the United States seemingly has walked away from a golden opportunity to cement closer relations with a country destined to become a major player in the Middle East in the 1990s. Any policy designed to protect US interests in the Persian Gulf must of necessity include a recognition of Iraq's future role in the region. Iraq is sitting on huge oil and gas reserves, second only to those in Saudi Arabia. Despite current severe financial difficulties, Baghdad can reasonably expect to return to its traditional ``cash-and-carry'' relationship with foreign contractors and suppliers within a decade. Minister of Oil Issam Al-Chalbi states that Iraq presently has an oil-production capacity of 4.5 million barrels per day (b/d). He forecasts that oil-export capacity will reach an estimated 6 million b/d by the end of 1990, a figure confirmed by international oil experts.

Iraq's population of 17 million is second only to Egypt in the Middle East and is larger than the combined populations of all the Gulf Arab states. It has a modern petrochemical and industrial infrastructure and is expanding its agricultural sector. Baghdad's defense forces are equipped with modern aircraft and heavy equipment and constitute the only battle-tested Arab army in the area. President Hussein intends to keep this military advantage by pushing the development of the largest military-production capability in the Middle East. Western experts visiting the Baghdad International Arms Exhibition last May found Iraq's arms industry much more sophisticated than they had expected. The Iraqi Military Production Authority has grown into a broad-based consortium capable of manufacturing most types of military equipment. It is believed to be developing a number of advanced weapons, including a ballistic missile.

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Iraq is beginning to flex its political muscles. It was a cofounder in February of the Arab Cooperation Council (ACC), composed of Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, and North Yemen. At the ACC's first summit meeting in June, Iraq received the group's backing for its claim to the Shatt al Arab waterway, disputed by Iran. The ACC also supported Iraq's call to the United Nations to clear the Shatt of the debris from the Iran-Iraq war. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak appealed to Iran, in a speech at the meeting, to ``change the cease-fire into a lasting and comprehensive peace.'' Clearly, Iraq is already meeting with success in bettering its relations with its Arab brothers.

As for Iraq's economic future, Saddam Hussein's regime continues to push toward increased oil production. With five new promising oil fields under development, production capacity soon will pass pre-war levels. Iraq can be expected to rival Saudi Arabia in the Organization of Petroleum Export Countries (OPEC) as a primary oil exporter in a few years. It is unlikely that Baghdad will agree to limit its oil sales so that Saudi Arabia may retain its traditional 25 percent of total OPEC exports. Iraq can justify higher oil exports by pointing to its need for foreign exchange to rebuild war-damaged oil facilities, and to expand its industrial, agricultural, transportation, and energy sectors.

Iraq's political and economic potential is recognized by the European Community, Japan, and the Soviet Union. Yet Washington insists on treating it as a political pariah, ignoring the fact that no other Arab nation has the ability to contest Iraq's growing strength. Egypt and Syria face growing economic difficulties, and Saudi Arabia, with a population of only 9 million, cannot be considered a counterweight to Iraq.

The Bush administration has been drifting, policy-less, in the Middle East, except for giving reluctant sporadic attention to the Israeli-Palestinian imbroglio. As for Iraq, Washington has been concerned over past Iraqi abuses of human rights and the use of chemical weapons. However, this should not be allowed to become a deterrent to maintaining a proper relationship with a country that can be of value to the US in protecting future overseas interests.

One need only consider that President Bush is determined to retain relations with the People's Republic of China despite the Tiananmen Square massacre. As Henry Kissinger said of China, Iraq ``remains too important for Americans and national security to risk the relationship on the emotion of the moment.''

Washington still has time to establish a more businesslike relationship with Iraq. The Bush administration must realize, however, that further procrastination will push Baghdad into the open arms of the West European nations and the Soviet Union. After Iraq recovers economically, and begins playing a leading political and economic role in the Middle East, it will be too late.

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