There is no moral case for war with Iraq, York University politics professor Haleh Afshar tells STEPHEN LEWIS. It really is all about oil...

HALEH Afshar is growing tired of politicians playing the Halabja card to justify war with Iraq. You know the argument - Saddam Hussein is a monster who, in 1988, used chemical weapons to kill thousands of Kurdish civilians at Halabja. It is therefore our moral duty to get rid of him before he murders more of his own people.

The hypocrisy of such an argument appals the Iranian-born professor of politics at York University.

"I'm Iranian by birth and Kurd by descent," she says, leaning forward for emphasis, "and I get... extremely ... impatient... when people evoke Halabja. The chemical weapons that were poured on the Kurds were provided by America."

So much for America's moral commitment to the oppressed people of Iraq. And what happened in Halabja, she points out, is just one example of American duplicity in the Middle East. "During the war between Iraq and Iran the American navy was in the Persian Gulf, and when an Iraqi missile accidentally hit the Americans, the Americans responded by missiling Iranian - not Iraqi, Iranian - oil installations.

"And when the American navy shot down an Iranian registered flight and killed 250 persons - all civilians - not only did the Americans not apologise, they subsequently decorated the captain of that particular naval ship for bravery."

It was the Americans, now engaged in a 'moralistic' war on terror, who virtually created al-Qaeda, funding Osama Bin Laden as a weapon to use against communism, she points out. And then there is hypocrisy of the indulgent way the Americans treat Israel, a country with as many nuclear warheads as Britain which has regularly flouted UN resolutions and breached the Geneva Convention in its treatment of Palestinians.

"It does seem to me that in terms of credibility - and moral credibility - America has no currency in the Middle East," Prof Afshar says.

Not that she has any sympathy for Saddam. She hates the Iraqi dictator. "He sent his missiles to Tehran the capital of her native Iran for eight years. I would do anything to have him removed. But, with the notable exception of Kuwait, there are no Arab or Muslim countries supporting this particular war."

Not even Turkey, a nation from which the Iraqi Kurds now have far more to fear than from Saddam himself. Turkey cannot even be bought into joining this particular war, she points out, because it is an Islamic government and as such doesn't want to go to war with another Islamic government.

There is also the fact that Turkey, like other Islamic nations, has little reason to trust the US. America has in the past proved to be a 'fickle friend', Prof Afshar says - just look at what happened to the Shia and Kurd oppositions to Saddam at the end of the last Gulf War. Saddam would not be in power today if the US had given them the support they needed then to overthrow the dictator. Instead, the Americans pulled out and Saddam's opponents were left to the tyrant's tender mercies.

The Americans, the professor believes, preferred the stability of a tyrannical regime like Saddam's to the uncertainty of a fledgling democratic government.

So any new war against Iraq will be nothing to do with morality, she insists. "There are no moral grounds. You have to have a vision of humanity as equal if you believe in human rights." And with the different standards applied to Israelis and Iraqis, Kuwaitis and Shias, there doesn't seem much evidence of that.

If not a moral war, then, why is the US is so keen to wage war on Saddam?

Prof Afshar believes it truly does come down to oil. Outside of Saudi Arabia, she says, Iraq has the largest known reserves of oil in the Middle East. The US is running short of oil, she says - and the president is advised by 46 unelected men and women who are big in the oil industry. "I think he's in hock to his advisers and the oil men that got him elected."

The clincher for her is that she can't think of any other reason for war. It is not on moral grounds. She doesn't think there is any real evidence that Iraq poses a threat to US interests. The dossier produced to justify war on the grounds of Iraq being a threat was so unconvincing, she says, that if one of her own students had presented it she'd have failed him. And certainly, Iraq is nothing like as much of a threat as North Korea.

The attempts to demonstrate a link with al-Qaeda don't hold water either. After all, the country with perhaps the strongest links to al-Qaeda, she points out, is the US itself, which funded the organisation for years.

"So it does seem to me that this suddenly waking up one day and thinking Iraq is the source of all evil must have something to do not with morality, not with cause and effect, not with worry of a pre-emptive strike, but with something else," she says. "Oil."

If that is the case, the reason for getting rid of Saddam would be that the US, which for 12 years has been demonising him, can't suddenly turn around and claim him as a friend. If they want to be close to an Iraqi government, it will have to be a government led by someone else.

Which brings her back to how to bring about regime change in Iraq. Sanctions are not the way any more than war, she says. Sanctions have lead to the deaths of thousands of innocent Iraqi women and children because of hunger, poverty and lack of medical care, and they have helped Saddam cling to power. Imposing sanctions and cutting off international trade makes a ruler the only source of access his people have to resources such as food and medical supplies - and thus bolsters his power.

So the way to get rid of Saddam is to provide Iraqi opposition groups, the Kurds and Shias, with the funds and weapons they need to topple him from inside - and then leave it to them.

Saddam, despite his secret police and revolutionary guard, is no more immovable than any other dictator, Prof Afshar says. "But he can only be moved by his own people."

As for George W Bush, he may lead the most powerful democracy in the world, but his gung-ho attitude shows he has little grasp of the process by which democracy grows and flourish, she adds.

"There seems to be this idea that it is something that can be dictated by force. That is just so blinkered," she says. "Democracy grows from grass roots. You cannot bomb people into democracy. It has to come from the bottom up. It cannot fall out of the sky."

So the sanctions must be stopped, and the Iraqi people finally given the chance to determine their own future. "For too long they have not been treated as human beings, just as pawns," Prof Afshar says. "Give them a chance."

Updated: 10:45 Tuesday, March 11, 2003