War in the Middle East has been averted - at least for the time being. The US and Britain have been forced to go along with the diplomatic agreement on weapons inspections which they have been claiming up till now it was impossible to achieve. The enforced climbdown of Bill Clinton, Madeleine Albright, Tony Blair and Robin Cook is a sign of the power of protest. The threat of upheaval in the Middle East itself, with riots and demonstrations against Britain and the US taking place throughout the region, forced some of the most right wing rulers there to oppose American intervention.
Even more surprising to Blair and Clinton was the well of disapproval for intervention in Britain and the US itself. Protest meetings, demonstrations and pickets were in evidence from the beginning. The parliamentary debate over war, including the small number of Labour left wingers who opposed it, was given wide coverage on television. In the US a televised debate featuring Albright in Columbus, Ohio - no doubt regarded by the government as a conservative, Midwest town - was marked by protests.
Clinton and Blair are putting a brave face on the settlement but neither can be happy that they have been stopped from bombing. The Guardian's columnist Martin Woollacott, who has taken a consistently pro war line, said the following:
'The United States has suffered a serious defeat... That defeat is not so much that the United States has been outmanoeuvred by Saddam, which is a consequence rather than a cause, but that its strategic policies for the Middle East have had to be abandoned or heavily modified.'
The diplomatic solution was never part of the US agenda. Now in addition the US looks weaker in the region and less able to intervene.
Tony Blair has done himself little good with his abject pursuit of Clinton's policy. He is identified as a junior partner of US imperialism and has shown all too clearly that British foreign policy, despite its supposedly 'ethical' standpoint, has not changed in any fundamental respect since the days of Thatcher and Major. A Labour government is prepared to unleash murder and misery - and even to raise the spectre of nuclear war - on the heads of ordinary Iraqis who already suffer enough under Saddam's regime.
Nor should we assume that this settlement is the end of the story. There are still sanctions in place, imposed by the UN. And the US and Britain will use every opportunity to find further pretexts for intervention in Iraq; on past performance, the UN may well back such interventions. Therefore the possibility of war is still there, with all the ramifications.
However, the present retreat from war is a victory for the campaign in the various countries and should give heart to all those trying to oppose government policy. The bitterness against Blair has been enhanced by his war posturing. Now many people will turn again to scrutinising his domestic policy and find it wanting.
Even here, there are signs of Labour feeling the heat over criticism, especially of its war on welfare. There is growing anger at proposed attacks on disability and sickness benefit, on pensions, as well as the existing attacks on single parents and students. Support for the useless Millennium Dome and endless praise heaped on businessmen are sickening enough symbols of a government which apes the Tories in virtually every policy. Gordon Brown's refusal to inject more money into public services even when the state's finances are much healthier than ever predicted is causing widespread anger. And the record level of NHS waiting lists is a major breach of one of Labour's supposedly unbreakable campaign promises.
When these are all justified by a government which says there is no money for health, education and welfare, but can find limitless funds to wage war in the Gulf, then the hypocrisy of the situation becomes apparent to millions. There is virtually no sign that any disgruntled Labour voters are returning to the Tories, who appear ever more marginal. The movement against the war, alongside the various campaigns on welfare, are all signs that New Labour is creating an opposition well to its left.
'Please help us. My father does not have enough money to buy clothes and we do not have enough to eat. Please can you send us some money.' This is the latest plea for help that Ahamid, an Iraqi dissident living in London received from his young niece in Baghdad. 'The situation is critical', says Ahamid desperately. 'More and more people are suffering, many children have died and things are getting worse.'
After the Gulf War the west in the shape of the UN imposed sanctions on Iraq - a complete blanket ban on imports and exports except for medical supplies and, in humanitarian circumstances, some food products. In fact there is a severe shortage of many medical supplies and food shortages are common - many Iraqis cannot afford to buy fresh meat, fruit and vegetables. Basics such as flour have risen in price some 11,666 times since 1990.
When Marti Ahtisaari a UN reporter, visited Iraq just after the Gulf War he wrote, 'Nothing we have seen or read could have prepared us for this particular devastation, a country reduced to a pre-industrial age for a considerable time to come.'
Malnutrition runs rampant. A recent Unicef report describes malnutrition as 'a potent factor for increased mortality in young children'. The figures make for chilling reading: there are some 960,000 children under the age of five who are chronically malnourished, a rise of 72 percent since August 1991 (when sanctions had already been in effect for a year). This is 32 percent of all children in this category. And the mortality rate for under fives has increased sevenfold since 1990. A child with diarrhoea in 1990 had a one in 600 chance of dying-today this is one in 50. Child mortality figures (which Unicef says are embargo related- the result of sanctions) from August 1990 to August 1997 are 1,211,285. That's three times the population of Kuwait.
Dr Khalli Jassem is chair of the International Relief Association. When visiting a school in Baghdad he saw a young girl, Zahraa, aged 14, faint. Asked why she collapsed she explained, 'It's not my turn to eat today.' Zahraa's family had to eat in rotation. Jassem explains that Iraq is the place to buy body parts now parents try to sell body organs to foreign doctors to get extra money to feed their families.
Spare parts for most machinary are embargoed because they could be used in the production of weapons of mass destruction. In Baghdad there were 60 ambulance control centres for the 5 million population. Prior to the war there were two ambulances for each centre. But lack of parts has reduced the fleet to just two for the entire population- without sheets, oxygen or resuscitation equipment. There is a shortage of pens, books and paper. The UN has also vetoed pencils because, it said, they had a 'dual use' - graphite can be used in weapons.
Since 1996 the UN has allowed Iraq to sell about $2.1 billion of oil every six months to buy food and medicine in exchange. But the UN creams off a chunk to subsidise its operations in Iraq and as reparations for the 1991 war. Iraq is left with less than half the almost $4 billion that the UN estimates is needed to meet its minimum emergency needs over a six month period. The US has agreed to double the amount of oil Iraq can export, but this won't meet the needs of Iraqi society and alleviate the suffering of ordinary Iraqis.
The cries for help will continue as long as the sanctions. Ahamid says the letters of desperation are all too frequent nowadays. 'My family in Iraq do not support the dictator Saddam Hussein,' he says, 'but they blame the west, and especially the US, for what is happening to ordinary Iraqis. The west armed Hussein in the first place and now they impose sanctions. The western governments are hypocrites. The aim of the sanctions is to destroy the Iraqi people-their future, their feelings and their education. We must not let this happen.'
Nothing exposed the hypocrisy of the US and British governments more clearly than their threat to bomb Iraq while remaining silent over Israel's nuclear weaponry. Yet, as Mordechai Vanunu revealed in 1986, Israel possessed 200 warheads, making it the world's sixth largest nuclear power.
In his book The Sampson Option, Seymour Hersh describes how the French first agreed in 1956 to help Israel develop nuclear weapons, shortly after the failure of the joint attack on Egypt by Israel, Britain and France. By 1958, the French had begun helping the Israelis to construct a secret underground nuclear reactor at Dimona.
It wasn't long before the US got wind of what was happening. By the end of 1959 it was clear to US government advisers that Israel was building nuclear bombs and that President Eisenhower was determined to look the other way. Israeli premier Ben Gurion declared to the Israeli parliament that the Dimona reactor was being developed for peaceful purposes. The US government immediately accepted his assurances.
The Kennedy administration, however, was anxious to avoid giving Egypt's president Nasser a pretext for embarking on an Egyptian nuclear programme. It demanded that the Israelis accept regular inspections to confirm Dimona's purely civil role and made the sale of advanced Hawk surface-to-air missiles dependent on them. The Israelis agreed but refused to allow an IAEA (International Atomic Energy Authority) inspection, only accepting a US team, and refused to allow any spot checks.
The annual inspections were reduced to farce. A false control room was constructed at Dimona to conceal the existence of the nuclear reprocessing plant. Vanunu told how a false wall was built to hide the service lifts to the underground floors where plutonium was separated and bomb parts manufactured. Essential to the cover up was preventing the American team from gaining access to the reactor core.
Israel was allowed to get away with continual stonewalling. A pattern was set up, whereby the inspectors would climb through the various excavations and find nothing. When in 1968 a CIA report concluded for the first time that Israel had manufactured four nuclear warheads, President Johnson ordered the CIA director to 'bury' it. The 1969 inspection team complained that it 'could not guarantee that there was no weapon-related work at Dimona in view of the limitations imposed by the Israelis on its inspection procedures.' The inspections ended in 1969 with the new president, Nixon, and his secretary of state Kissinger being prepared to collude with the Israeli bomb.
In 1976 the US congress passed the Symington amendment which provided for foreign aid to be cut off from those countries who break the 1970 Non-Proliferation Treaty by developing nuclear weapons. However, Israel was given a get-out clause through special dispensation being granted to those countries already possessing nuclear materials. A further rider allowed the US president to override the law if essential US interests are at stake.
Thus, from, early on, Israel was prepared to raise the Middle East arms race to a nuclear level. There is little doubt that Israel's possession of nuclear weapons acted as a spur to Iraq's development of its nuclear capability from the mid 1970s. Israel is the watchdog of America's Middle Eastern oil interests. It is therefore allowed to become simultaneously a small tail wagging an even larger dog.
In the meantime, Mordechai Vanunu is in his 12th year of solitary confinement, the year when he will have served two thirds of his 18 year sentence and is officially eligible for parole. The Campaign to Free Vanunu is pledged to redouble its efforts to secure his unconditional release.
Here is an imaginary question. Imagine that you are Gordon Brown. On your desk is the monthly report of government income and expenditure. It shows that in January tax receipts reached a record £34 billion. Do you:
a) tell your secretary to cancel all engagements and book a suite at the Ritz?
b) announce an immediate release of funds to abolish NHS waiting lists, reduce class size to 25, and give nurses and teachers their full pay awards?
c) pay out £10.4 billion to reduce the national debt and tell the nurses and teachers that they must wait till the end of the year for the increases due to them?
The answer is, of course, not imaginary (unless your name happens to be Jonathan Aitken). Tax receipts are at an all time high and on the most cautious estimates of City economists there is already £3 billion more to spend than was estimated in last November's budget announcement. Yet at the same time the government is backtracking on its pledges on health and education and has imposed a deal which means a cut in real pay for nurses and teachers for the third year running.
The government's action in delaying the full payment of the review body awards has caused outrage - and no wonder. Labour is simply adopting the same policy as the Tories. The review bodies are independent panels of the good and the great which are intended to set 'fair' pay and conditions for teachers, nurses and other health service professionals, doctors and dentists, and the armed forces - altogether about 1.3 million people. For most of the past eight years these awards have been repeatedly delayed or frozen.
Cumulatively these delays mean that earnings have fallen further and further behind as the government clawed back the money. This year staff will in effect be denied a third of the pay rise due to them. Yet the amount of money required to pay the increases in full is £396 million - a small fraction of the sum which Brown has paid out, mainly to the banks, to reduce the national debt.
Typically the response to this sort of criticism is that the government has to prove its financial 'probity'. 'We are not going to repeat the mistakes of the past,' says Brown. The implication is that Labour will maintain a tight squeeze until the run up to the next general election - just as the Tories did. Already public spending is 1.5 percent lower than it was this time last year. The justification for this is that the government has the opportunity to create a 'long term stable environment'. Stable for whom? For bankers and investors perhaps - but not for those who work in the public services, or for those who use them.
However, the government's public sector pay cuts - 'Thatcherism without the human face' as it was described by Victor Keegan in the Guardian - means that for the first time there is potentially a strong focal point for resistance to Blair in the unions. Union leaders such as Rodney Bickerstaffe who have done their utmost to block any criticism of New Labour, let alone opposition, are now obliged to take a stronger line, at least verbally. The unrelenting pressure on the public sector means that support for the Labour leadership will become harder and harder for Bickerstaffe to deliver in the coming months. And on top of this Blair has been threatening to adopt the bosses' line on the issue of greatest importance to the union officials - the promised law on union recognition.
The one real Labour Party commitment to the unions is the proposed new legislation on recognition. All the Tory laws restricting union rights - described by Blair himself as 'the most restrictive in the western world' - are to stay. Almost all the other legislation on employment rights is a consequence of European law being implemented in Britain - for example, the laws on working time or on rights to consultation. But from the start, the Labour leadership has distanced itself from union recognition in the hope that the TUC and the employers' confederation, the CBI, would come to a compromise.
These talks concluded at the end of November last year with a joint statement setting out a few points of agreement - and major areas of disagreement. Two of the crucial sticking points are the employers' insistence on their right to retain 'personal contracts', thus undermining the principle of collective bargaining, and their demand that recognition rights should depend on the votes of an absolute majority of the workforce, not just a majority of those voting in a ballot. The effect of this would be that abstention would count as a vote against the union, making it almost impossible to win a ballot. If the same criteria were used for, say, parliamentary elections, there would be very few MPs qualified to sit in the House of Commons.
To the anger of the TUC, Blair and his acolytes have made it clear that they support the employers' position. In fact the CBI only adopted a hard line after taking soundings with the Labour leadership. In the past Labour leaders were anxious to agree with the employers for the sake of respectability. Under New Labour respectability is not the main issue. Blair is simply inclined to take the bosses' view.
The divisions are not simply Labour versus the unions. While Blair has been talking to the employers, ministers such as Ian McCartney and Margaret Beckett have offered reassurances to the TUC. So the issue has become a nasty test for Blair, and his policy unit has been working overtime to find compromise formulas in time for the white paper on 'Fair Employment' which is scheduled for April. Meanwhile the TUC is organising a special conference in May to look at the proposals. It is not clear what status this conference will have - nor whether it will be for delegates or union executives - but it's clearly intended to send a signal to Downing Street.
Although in many ways the detailed arguments about the formulas to be used to establish statutory recognition are quite technical, they are important because they have become political issues. As with the bitterness over public sector pay, the arguments about union recognition will be a focal point for dissent in the months to come.
Once again the prospects for peace in Northern Ireland have been thrown into the melting pot by the British government with the suspension of Sinn Fein from the all party talks.
Sinn Fein is the third largest political party in Northern Ireland. It received 130,000 votes at the last general election and had two MPs returned. Tony Blair and Mo Mowlam are now saying that Sinn Fein can be excluded from the all party talks on the say of the RUC chief constable, Ronnie Flanagan. Flanagan placed responsibility on the IRA for two recent killings, despite the fact that the IRA denied involvement and has said its ceasefire remains intact. As a result of this Sinn Fein has been excluded. It is a disgraceful decision.
The RUC is a deeply sectarian force which is overwhelmingly Protestant. Only last May an 18 year old in Portadown was kicked to death by a Loyalist mob just a few yards from an RUC jeep. When one of his friends appealed for them to stop the attack they ignored her. Chief Constable Flanagan has been all too ready to clear a path for Orange marches through Catholic areas such as the Ormeau Road in East Belfast and the Garvaghy Road in Portadown.
Sinn Fein was excluded after the killings of a suspected drug dealer and a leading member of the Ulster Defence Association. Within hours of the latter killing the Catholic Twinbrook area of West Belfast was sealed off by the RUC who arrested seven men, immediately labelled 'IRA suspects'. Within days Flanagan announced forensic tests connecting them to the killing.
The speed with which the RUC reacted contrasts with their failure to arrest anyone concerning the sectarian slaughter of 29 Catholics before and after Xmas. It was common knowledge that the UDA were involved in these killings. The RUC did not come out and identify the UDA as the murderers until the very dogs on the street were proclaiming the facts. The Labour government's lack of initiative to stop the talks breaking down also contrasts with the urgency it displayed in December in keeping the Loyalists on board. Then, talk of the Loyalist groups breaking their ceasefire led Mo Mowlam scurrying to the Maze prison to talk to UDA prisoners. This was at the height of the loyalist killing spree.
The exclusion of Sinn Fein from the all party talks has delighted the Ulster Unionists, the party which obtains most Protestant votes. Since New Labour suddenly announced that the creation of a new Northern Ireland Assembly was on the cards the Ulster Unionists' leader David Trimble has been angling to get Sinn Fein excluded. For many Catholics such an assembly would herald a return of the old Unionist dominated parliament which ruled Northern Ireland as a one party state from 1921 to 1972. Catholics were rigorously excluded from having the slightest say in how Northern Ireland was run and systematically discriminated against. Accompanying all this was a sustained level of repression maintained by the RUC - a permanently armed force.
Privately Trimble believes that with the Republicans excluded he can reach an agreement with the main Catholic party, the SDLP, on the creation of the assembly. On past performance he must think it likely the SDLP will take the bait. Seamus Mallon, deputy leader of the SDLP, recently said:
'What is on offer is the opportunity to create a body which would give nationalists, for the first time, a share of the executive power in Northern Ireland. It would be something absolutely new.'
Mallon says the SDLP will have power 'over education, agriculture and roads'.
The truth is that all it would do is put a non-sectarian facade around what will remain a sectarian state. Discrimination and sectarianism would remain. More importantly it would do nothing to meet the desire for change that exists among Protestant and Catholic workers. That feeling brought people together on the streets prior to the very first IRA ceasefire. It was evident again last month when workers called for peace at trade union organised rallies. It was evident before Xmas when 1,500 students marched in Belfast against the introduction of fees.
Sinn Fein is hoping that a 'green tide' can boost its fortunes in both Northern Ireland and south of the border, in the Irish Republic. Sinn Fein's suspension from the talks has allowed Gerry Adams, party president, to use language which echoes some of the discontent with the peace process in Republican ranks. Adams' strategy previously rested on the creation of a common, pan-nationalist front between Sinn Fein, the SDLP, the Fianna Fail government in Dublin, Irish American politicians and the Clinton administration. Now they have all given the go ahead to Sinn Fein's exclusion.
Adams has been forced to take that on board. The glimmer of a new strategy seems to be emerging whereby Sinn Fein can build its electoral support on both sides of the border representing itself as the voice of the excluded. Any support by the SDLP for a Northern Ireland Assembly would be used to show that it was pro-Unionist. In the Republic, Sinn Fein hopes to feed off disenchantment with Fianna Fail and the failure of the established left to offer an alternative.
It is all too tempting to focus on talk of breakaways from the IRA rather than grasping that militarism failed to achieve victory over three decades and that this is widely recognised in Republican ranks. As a strategy it offers the perspective that at some distant date Sinn Fein can return to negotiations in a far stronger position. But it offers nothing to those who want change in the here and now. Sinn Fein accepts, along with all the other parties, that Protestants and Catholics come from different cultures and have their own separate interests.
This pits Protestant and Catholic workers against each other for a share of low paid jobs and ever decreasing services. It is a recipe for increasing sectarianism rather than diminishing it. The formal peace process has nothing to offer workers but they fought to get peace and they have an interest in maintaining it. The only long term guarantee that peace will hold is building a fighting unity between Protestant and Catholic workers. New Labour and the Unionists have no interest in that and Sinn Fein has no role to play in achieving it.