The saving of Kuwait by a grand coalition of willing nations represented a golden age for the United Nations, but divisions over how to address Saddam Hussein's evasions on weapons of mass destruction exposed its limitations. Olivia Ward reports
IThe mob was bearing down rapidly, fists clenched, levelling everything in its path. Tripping over a tripod, I was thrown to the ground. My tape recorder smashed and my notebook landed in a potted palm-tree. This was life in the media scrum as US Secretary of State James Baker and Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze arrived at the United Nations in September 1990, a month after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait.
The once-sluggish world body had become the centre of global politics as one diplomatic effort followed another, and we were rushing to see if it had agreed to sanction the use of force against the Iraqi dictator. The arrival of the Washington press corps seemed to set the seal on the UN's centrality. This was where earth-shattering issues were decided, and where World War Three would or would not be launched.
"The UN gave legitimacy to military action, and it played a crucial role before and after the Gulf War," says Sir Marrack Goulding, undersecretary-general of the UN at that time. "It was at the peak of its success."
In the 1980s, at the tail end of the Cold War, the UN was a very different place. The Soviet Union and the US, then the world's two great powers, slugged it out in proxy wars - from El Salvador to Mozambique. These worked their way up the pipeline to the UN's headquarters by New York's East River, where they became the stuff of endless speeches until one of the players grew tired of underwriting them and the organisation obliged by mounting a new peacekeeping operation. Otherwise, barring the work of its humanitarian agencies, it appeared to be almost irrelevant - a "talking shop" beyond the real world. But Iraq changed that, with the help of US President George Bush senior. This was an era in which world leaders paid more than lip service to the concept of international community.
"It was the golden age of the UN," says Goulding. "There were huge differences between the Gulf War era and what happened in 2003. Before the Gulf War, there was none of the agony over divisions with European countries. Nobody voted against sanctions. Force was authorised.
"After the war, the United Nations was asked to deal with various things - demarcation of the Kuwait border, peacekeeping, issues of property removed by Iraqi forces, reparations, and to set up a commission to find and destroy weapons of mass destruction. The UN was kept informed at every stage."
Then the invasion of Kuwait threw down a challenge that few nations could ignore. That a sovereign, oil-rich country should be taken over so effortlessly by a ruthless dictator shook leaders on all continents.
Saddam's flagrant brutality won little support in any quarter. Even his old ally the Soviet Union, with billions of dollars in Iraqi debt, found it hard to excuse this disastrous action. Within four days of the August 2 invasion, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council voted to impose economic sanctions, although most judged it too early for military retaliation.
President Bush took note of the rare concert of opinion, and decided it would be an error to rush to war alone. The Soviet Union, though showing signs of strain, was a force to be reckoned with, while China was unpredictable, and the balance in the Middle East somewhat shaky. The European nations had military muscle to contribute, though with oil at stake they needed to be convinced.
Opting for shuttle diplomacy, James Baker gradually won support for the use of force against Iraq, even as last-ditch diplomacy urged Saddam to withdraw. Huddling in back rooms for long hours, Baker and Shevardnadze emerged smiling, and stories of their "personal chemistry" were judiciously leaked to the press. As a result, the UN passed a historic resolution to approve the use of force against Iraq.
By the time the war began, on January 17, 1991, some 34 countries had joined the coalition. Arab states stood alongside the main European nations, Czechoslovakia, Canada, Australia, Pakistan and Hungary. Of the 660,000 troops deployed in the Persian Gulf, a quarter were from outside the US.
When Operation Desert Storm began, Saddam's forces were routed. Pushed out of Kuwait, those evading capture fled to southern Iraq via the road to Basra, where they were attacked with such ferocity by US helicopter gunships that witnesses said it was like shooting fish in a barrel. Footage of charred Iraqi soldiers incinerated in their vehicles on what became known as the Road of Death shocked the world and President Bush halted the war, leaving the dictator alive in Baghdad.
From that point, the UN began a slow descent from its apex of entente.
"Compare the very small role the UN played in the recent war with what happened during the first," says Goulding. "The UN had a very central role after the Gulf War, but by the time the second war began, that was over."
With political will to overthrow Saddam ebbing, the coalition quietly dissolved, leaving the dictator unchecked in the brutal suppression of rebellions by Kurds in northern Iraq and Shiites in the south. A month later, Bush announced "no-fly zones" over the northern and southern third of Iraq to protect these two groups, and in April that year launched the first of a long series of "peacetime" bombings in a bid to discourage further killings.
As sanctions were maintained, stories emerged of Iraqis dying of lack of food and medicine. Over a decade, reports became increasingly grim until they declared that at least 500,000 Iraqi children had died by the time of the 2003 invasion. The Oil for Food programme, under which Saddam agreed to sell limited amounts of oil in exchange for humanitarian goods, eased the embargo, but the move brought little relief to the beleaguered Iraqis.
"We are quite desperate," said a doctor in the main Baghdad children's hospital, where patients were dying daily from treatable diseases and the suicide rate of the medical staff rose in tandem. "They say medicines are available, but we don't get them. We buy what we can get on the black market."
As UN members argued over whether Iraq's catastrophe was caused by sanctions or Saddam's corruption, America's allies were also divided on how to discipline a country that agreed to allow UN inspectors to track suspected weapons of mass destruction while evading them at every turn.
Crisis after crisis arose as Saddam's forces diverted and detained the inspectors, who nevertheless destroyed tonnes of deadly material.
"The carrot was the lifting of the oil embargo on compliance, and the stick was the threat of military action," wrote British weapons inspector Tim Trevan in the late 1990s. "But Saddam decided the cost - most of which falls on the Iraqi population - was bearable."
With many of the Gulf War's original backers disillusioned with the hide-and-seek of weapons detection, the inspectors lost support and the UN lost face. Then, in December 1998, the world body was bypassed altogether.
President Bill Clinton, aided by Tony Blair, began a four-day bombing campaign against Baghdad, but without the agreement of the Security Council. Washington was now the sole superpower, and although Clinton had no desire for another war against Iraq, it was a sign that the US no longer needed international backing for the use of force.
Worse was to come. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, President Bush declared a "war on terror", making it clear that action would be taken with or without UN support. When he vowed to stop Iraq from using deadly weapons against America and its allies, the UN became polarised between those who sought the completion of weapons inspections and others who saw them as a futile and dangerous deception. The division was deepened by Bush's own denigration of the inspections, and murmurs from Washington that the UN was "irrelevant" escalated as war became imminent.
In Baghdad, a tragic-comic exercise in glasnost came too late. Reporters were bused into sites where they would once have been arrested to watch sweating, undernourished industrial workers turn out factory parts.
"We have no weapons, as you can see," said Iraqi General Hussam Amin, the plant's director, with a pleading note in his voice.
Weeks later, the skies over Baghdad turned grey as "smart bombs" hit the city. Half a world away, a cloud hung over the UN. Prospects for seeing it lift any time soon now lie not in the UN building, but in the capitals of the world's most powerful countries - most of all in Washington.
Olivia Ward was UN correspondent for the Toronto Star from 1989-92 and later covered the Soviet Union, the Balkans and the Middle East, including Iraq