When George W. Bush meets Tony Blair this weekend, Iraq is likely to be on the agenda. Harriet Swain and Olga Wojtas talk to the experts about a strike on Saddam.
As the situation in the Middle East deteriorates, the Labour government has apparently indefinitely delayed publication of a dossier said to reveal evidence that Saddam Hussein is building weapons of mass destruction. It was due to be published in the lead-up to prime minister Tony Blair's meeting with US president George W. Bush this weekend, but Alastair Campbell, the No 10 press secretary, says it will now be published when "it is believed to be appropriate".
The delay is thought to have been prompted by fears that it would be difficult to sell the idea of war against Iraq to the British people given the hostilities in Israel and Palestine and criticisms from Labour MPs and military officers. But while the situation remains unclear, with reports of a US build-up in the region last week, The THES consulted those whose voices have not been much heard in the debate: the academic experts.
Only one Middle East specialist we spoke to, Gerd Nonneman, executive director of the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies, feels he has had any direct influence on policy in the region. None believes a military attack on Iraq is a good idea at present or feels that there is clear justification for an attack. Most agree that it is likely Iraq has chemical and biological weapons, but there is disagreement about whether it has nuclear capabilities. Some feel that it will within five years, others believe it is far off. All think that unless there is a breakthrough in the Israel/Palestine situation, an attack on Iraq will totally destabilise the region.
Some believe an attack is likely, others feel that the threats are designed to force Saddam into a tighter bargaining position. However, none of the experts questioned expresses any respect for the way the British and American governments have handled the situation so far.
Eugene Rogan, director of Oxford University's Middle East Centre, says: "I think a war with Iraq is ill-advised. We are all pretty horrified. There is little confidence that the American administration has much sense about the ramifications of such an attack. They are not terribly clued in to international affairs. It would bring tremendous anti-American and anti-British sentiment."
Tim Niblock, director of the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies and professor of Middle Eastern politics at the University of Exeter, also believes attacking Iraq "would be a disastrous thing to do". "It is almost impossible to believe that an Iraq that is stable and democratic would emerge from that kind of action. Either one ruler will be removed and replaced with another similar one or there will be a situation of total anarchy.
"The argument that there is no alternative is wrong. There is an alternative because there is something that the Iraqi regime wants very much: to regain territorial and financial sovereignty.
"It is also very clear that for most of the Iraqi population there is the perception that their enemies are Britain and the US. Many have their own problems with Saddam, but there is the underlying perception that what is being done to Iraq - in terms of sanctions and compensation payments - is tremendously unfair and is affecting the whole of the population."
Hussein Sirriyeh, senior lecturer in the Arabic department at Leeds University, agrees that there are alternatives to military action: "The best possible course is to put extreme pressure on Iraq to accept a weapons inspection. But the problem is they have ways of hiding things. There are things we do not know and we have to admit this.
"But before western governments take action, they will have to think carefully. They should try other options. Saddam has shown he could be accommodated in some ways. He could easily give in under pressure. Attacking Iraq now is not advisable. The ultimate aim must be to remove Saddam since another leadership may be more amenable to persuasion. I am sure many Iraqis would be pleased to see this happen - even some close to Saddam. They cannot go on living in the situation Iraq has been living in for the past ten years."
Nonneman, reader in international relations and Middle Eastern politics at Lancaster University, points to the complexity of the issues. "Some people combine two views in one head, including myself - the need to be seen to be acting in accordance with international law and the need to do this in an even-handed manner in the Arab-Israel conflict, which is important at a regional level and, in the long term, at an international level. The perception that these two levels would not be realised (in an attack on Iraq) means it is a disastrous policy.
"On the other hand, my personal view is that if there is any way in which we could get rid of Saddam, we should. The effects both on the region and on Iraq itself have been so disastrous for such a long time that his removal would enable a whole lot of other things in terms of democracy. It could not be any worse than him, unless Iraq collapses. But I don't think that is likely. The Kurds in the north know they must not allow that to happen because then they will draw in the Turks and they will lose the support of the international community. The dream of Kurdistan is not something they will push for. The Shi-ites in the south have not shown any interest in separating from Iraq, just a share of economic resources and political power."
Charles Tripp, reader in the politics of the Middle East at London's School of Oriental and African Studies, is not convinced that removing Saddam is necessarily helpful. "There has been muddled thinking by the American and the UK governments on this. How do you disarm Iraq? You cannot do it by bombardments, you have to invade the country - and that seems to involve a military operation of such a scale and with repercussions that are very dubious.
"The idea of Saddam as a maverick who will release a weapon as soon as he has it does not make sense if you look at the contexts when he has used them.
"The more you study the Middle East, and Iraq in particular, the more you realise that there is a context and a logic. Saddam is a product of Iraqi history and society, not just a weird growth on the end of it. You do not solve the problems of Iraq by removing him."
Anoush Ehteshami, professor of international relations at Durham University's Institute for Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies, is also sceptical. "If Iraq is being attacked for its weapons position, or intelligence information about it, why are we not going against other countries we know have these weapons, such as Israel? In the Arab world there is the impression left that you are targeting them because they are an Arabic country.
"If there is an attack against Iraq, the pressure on Arab states will be so tremendous that it will need a very brave leader to support it, even if Saddam Hussein does use chemical weapons. It is just inconceivable."
Yasir Suleiman, director of Edinburgh University's Institute for the Advanced Study of Islam and the Middle East, argues that public opinion is a crucial factor. "Any action would inflame public opinion in the Arab and Muslim world. It is likely that this action will end up inflicting more pain and suffering on the Iraqi people, who have suffered enormously over the past ten years. Would the international community be prepared to back such action?
"If the Americans are interested in weapons of mass destruction, they should be consistent and try to bring all such weapons under international scrutiny, including Israel's. That is not the case. For the Americans to have any credibility, they must be willing to treat the Palestinian situation as one worthy of their sustained and active involvement. Britain has followed American policy over Iraq in the past. It seems likely that this policy direction will be implemented unquestioningly in the future, although it may end up harming British national interests in the Middle East."
Magnus Ranstorp, deputy director of St Andrews University's Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence, believes any attack could harm the war against terrorism. "The attack on Iraq may trigger a series of Scud missile attacks on the Israelis, and Israel may have to respond to re-establish its deterrent capability, which has been weakened by the al-Aqsa intifada. This may activate and destabilise Israel's northern border with Lebanon as Hezbollah may seize the opportunity to manoeuvre out of the Shiiba farm area and assist the Palestinians.
"There is the possibility of a regional meltdown. The situation is precarious and may detract from the overall war against terrorism, which requires a global coalition. Iraq is involved in a diplomatic charm offensive through the UN as a delaying tactic, but the US is in no mood to play a game that has gone on for most of the 1990s. We have to expect the worst and a war is coming sooner rather than later. Why else the British and US troop redeployments?"