Gulf watching

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McGill Reporter
April 3, 2003 - Volume 35 Number 13
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Gulf watching

Will Saddam release anthrax? Is there really going to be a Kurdistan? Does the U.N. have a future in Iraq? If you want answers to these questions, you're not alone. For the past month, hundreds of students and handfuls of professors have come each week to GulfWatch 2003 in the Leacock Building to get some perspective on the war.

Freedom fries aren't on the menu in this hour-long interactive forum. This is no-fat talk about complex issues, and the panelists have eschewed greasy value judgments in favour of academic exploration.

Last Friday, each of the five panelists, all McGill political science professors and experts in the area, gave updates and analyses on certain aspects of the conflict -- its military progress, the Shiite reluctance to rise, political opposition in the region, and the effect of the Al-Jazeera news network -- then opened the floor up to questions.

Although the professors often shared breaking news, Paul Noble emphasized that they were not playing news anchor. "We're not trying to rehash the latest detailed information from the ground," he said. "We're trying to provide a context to understand this."

Previous forums addressed Syria's role and the importance of Jordan. Friday's discussion, the fifth in the series, focused on the Kurds -- the implication of their involvement, their history, and Turkey's influence on their fate.

The latter has dwindled significantly, according to Steve Saideman, an expert in ethnic conflict. "The Turks have lost their veto [over decisions about post-war Iraq]," he said. "It's good for the Kurds and, I would suggest, good for the post-war rebuilding."

Unlike the Shia who, to the dismay of the American administration, have not turned against Saddam's regime, the Kurds have actively taken up arms. David Romano attributed this difference to recent history. After the 1991 Gulf War, both Kurds and Shia rebelled against the Iraqi government. Although the Americans stood aside as Saddam's forces extinguished the Shiite revolt in the south, they created and enforced an autonomous zone in the north to protect the Kurds.

Romano explained that if the Shia do not aid the Americans then the Kurds will be reluctant to allow them much say in a post-Saddam government. However, said Paul Noble, the Americans don't want to marginalize the Iraqi Shia, for fear of post-war political instability. As well, one of the reasons the Americans have tried to avoid killing civilians in the south is for fear of enraging the sizable Iranian Shiite population.

After all, said James Devine, the Americans want to build Iraq up as a democratic domino and let its example topple tyrannies in the region. "So far," he said, "it hasn't gone well."

There are many reasons for this. One of them is Al-Jazeera, the Middle Eastern equivalent of CNN. It has galvanized regional opposition to the United States by airing scenes of civilian carnage and resistance. Last week, for example, the network showed clips of a British soldier standing passively alongside Iraqis as they shouted pro-Saddam slogans at a chaotic food relief operation.

Al-Jazeera has also had a psychological impact in the West. Not only has the network often released information before its Western counterparts, the U.S. Central Command has frequently denied Al-Jazeera's claims only to retract their objections later on. This, said Brynen, has left the impression that it is the Americans who are spinning the news.

During question period, audience-member Murtaza Haider, assistant professor of urban planning, said that he felt the professors had too quickly brushed off talk of civilian deaths. "There are people there; we have alumni there. I want to know what is happening to the people," he said. Many applauded his statement, and much of the rest of the forum was spent addressing his concern.

Some panelists and students felt that this humanitarian issue sidetracked the political discussion. There will be much more political analysis in the upcoming weeks, though, as the GulfWatch series will continue for the duration of the conflict. "Given the way the Gulf War is going," said Brynen, "we may be doing this for a long time."

The next forum will be held at 1:30 p.m. on Friday, April 11, at the Fieldhouse Auditorium (Leacock 132). Check gulfwatch2003 for more details.

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