Typical headlines in the Russian papers over the past few days: “Verdict against Saddam has already been handed down.” “America rushes to save the world from Saddam.” “When will the US strike at Iraq?” The situation centering around the Iraqi leader has heated up to flashpoint; almost no one doubts that Saddam Hussein is doomed. The only differences of opinion concern the timing of the operation.

According to Nezavisimaya Gazeta, the political decision to use force against Iraq was made by President Bush back in March, and since then planning has progressed at full speed. To date, three options for action have been developed.

The first option favors special operation, with the aim of “eliminating Iraq’s topmost military and political leadership” (i.e. Saddam Hussein). Such an operation would use CIA agents supported by the marines and special forces. It would aim to foment a coup in Baghdad and destabilize the military leadership of Iraq.

A subcategory of this option would involve organizing a Kurdish uprising against Saddam Hussein in northern Iraq. In response, Baghdad would crack down on the Kurds; the Kurds would appeal for help to the United States; and then – see above.

The second option is a “limited military operation” by the US Armed Forces which have already been sent to the region for the counter-terrorist operation. At present, Nezavisimaya Gazeta says, there are around 40,000 personnel, and more could be sent over.

The third option is a large-scale military campaign or an “invasion” – it is to be used if both the “secret operation” for a coup in Baghdad and the “limited operation” according to the Afghanistan model fail.

According to the paper, the timing of the operation will depend on the option chosen, but it is unlikely to take place earlier than in October or November. Besides, developments the counter-terrorist operation and the peace process in the Middle East can also influence the timing of the campaign.

A large-scale campaign may start in January or February 2003. Apparently, the present conflict between the Arabs and Israel may also deteriorate the situation.

Besides, the Moskovskie Nopvosti weekly says, US opponents of the military operation think a number of questions have to be answered before any action is taken. The military operation in Afghanistan is still underway, and “there are no signs of its successful conclusion”. The attempts to start negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians have not yet been successful either.

It is also necessary to find allies for the operation. An observer with Moskovskie Novosti thinks this issue may be resolved at the end of September, during the Warsaw summit of NATO defense ministers.

Another important circumstance is that in November the Congress elections are to take place in the US and the political layout of forces may change substantially. That is why analysts think the US is unlikely to start the operation until then.

At the same time, Kommersant does not rule out that the operation may start much earlier – any day now.

It may be launched on the anniversary of September 11. It is no coincidence that Vice President Dick Cheney stated in his notorious speech to US military veterans: “A preventive strike on Iraq is urgently necessary, before it repeats the September 11 attack on the US.”

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld supports Cheney: “Our country is making correct decisions, and other countries will cooperate with us and will also participate in the operation. We will lead the world along the right path, and we will have followers, as we did when we launched the war against international terrorism and 90 countries started cooperating with us.”

At the same time, there are certain problems with finding allies. Neither Europe, the Arab nations, nor Japan (which has just marked the anniversary of Hiroshima) are supporting the US military plans. Indian Foreign Minister Jasvanti Singh says, “Preventive strikes are unacceptable against any countries, especially if they aim to change the political regime”. German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, in turn, says unambiguously that Germany will not participate in the operation under his leadership. Kommersant explains that German politicians do not have a choice: elections are scheduled for September 22, and German voters strongly object to a meaningless invasion of Iraq.

Meanwhile, Iraqi emissaries are not wasting any time. Iraq Foreign Minister Naji Sabri visited China and managed to obtain its open support. Chinese Deputy Premier Qian Qichen says, “Relations between Baghdad and Beijing are extremely friendly”. Chinese foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan stresses that the Chinese leadership thinks the “Iraq problem must be solved at the UN”.

But according to Kommersant, the fact that the rest of the world objects to the anti-Iraq operation may actually accelerate events: “Supporters of the invation in the White House know very well that only an atmosphere of hysteria over September 11 can silence protests around the world.”

The Vremya Novostei paper notes that the US administration is toning down its statements about the inevitability of the war and quotes President Bush, “I am a patient person.” Lately, even Vice President Cheney surprised observers with his promise that no new war will be started in the Gulf without prior consultations with Congress and US allies.

However, according to expert appraisals, the changes in White House rhetoric are primarily due to an internal struggle in the Bush administration.

Vremya Novostei says that the differences of opinion on Iraq are reminiscent of expectations at the start of Bush’s term; in part, people were saying then that Cheney, an experienced veteran politician, would be able to dominate the less experienced President Bush. In the immediate aftermath of September 11, it was clear who was running the country: Cheney.

Most likely, says Vremya Novostei, Cheney intends to do what he failed to accomplish as defense secretary in the administration of George H. W. Bush, during Operation Desert Storm.

Incumbent US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld entirely supports Cheney. However, the paper notes, some other supporters of the military campaign have “never seen a war before”.

Amazingly enough, there are many people with a military background among opponents of the operation in Iraq: for instance, Secretary of State Colin Powell; General Brent Scowcroft, former national security adviser to George H. W. Bush; or House Majority Leader Dick Armey.

Vremya Novostei notes that the military experience of President Bush is also rather modest and it is still unclear what the president’s plans concerning the anti-Iraq operation are. Supposedly, the US president will reveal more of his plans in the near future, in his speech to the UN General Assembly.

As for Russia, which the Izvestia paper announced to be Iraq’s major supporter, so far it is economically benefiting by the militarist plans of the US “hawks”.

After latest statements of Dick Cheney, world oil prices jumped to $30 a barrel. Besides, the media are excitedly discussing the prospects of the Russia-Iraq $40 billion economic cooperation agreement. Iraq diplomats are doing their best to inform the whole world of the friendship between Russia and Iraq.

Meanwhile, Yury Shafrannik, head of the Russian Oil and Gas Union and former fuel and energy minister, said in his interview with Gazeta that “nothing extraordinary has happened in Russia-Iraq relations.”

According to Shafrannik, the $40 billion contract should be signed as soon as possible: Russia is greatly interested in cooperation with Iraq, “especially in the present situation, when Russian industry does not have many orders.”

At the same time, Shafrannik agrees that such projects are a “big risk for investors” now, against the backdrop of present discussions “to bomb or not to bomb Iraq”. On the other hand, Shafrannik thinks the risk may be justified with further proceeds.

As for the Putin’s pro-western agenda, it is not profitable for Russia. “Over the past 12 years, industrial output has fallen, militarization is down, we have withdrawn from Europe, we have surrendered or are planning to surrender territories,” says Shafrannik. According to Shafrannik, the conclusion is obvious, “Russia’s capital flight is feeding foreign economies,” and Russia does not have any solution other than cooperating with Iraq.

Nonetheless, Shafrannik thinks it is necessary to make it clear to the West that cooperation with Iraq is needed for protection of Russia’s economic interests. Shafrannik considers that the Russian oil sector should first of all be interested in a peaceful settlement of the US-Iraq conflict.

By the way, the half-forgotten Vladimir Zhirinovsky also links the situation around Iraq with the state of global oil markets. It has been noted many times that Zhirinovsky is usually very well informed and that his sometimes “absurd” statements often turn out to be true in the long run.

Zhirinovsky explained in his interview with the Mir Novostei weekly why he thinks the anti-Iraq operation is inadmissible, “Oil prices can range from $6 to $60 a barrel. The optimal price is $25 a barrel. If a military operation starts, oil prices will either fall to $6 – then Russia and the Arab world would collapse, which would cause global chaos; or rise to $60 a barrel, and then the US would collapse.” However, the leader of the Liberal-Democratic Party of Russia also offered opinions like the following: “In the distant future Russia and the US might become a single state. We are neighbors across the Bering Strait; the mentality of Russians and Americans is very similar; America needs Russia’s energy resources; it is very difficult to fight terrorism without the Russian military…. The US is a strong economy, while Russia’s strength is in its resources and location. Russia should follow the example of the US and become as selfish as the US.”

Even the Pravda paper decided to note the economic component of the Iraq issue: “Iraq supplies 7% of US oil imports and in case of a war it will be difficult to cover the shortfall.” Besides, a war would endanger the whole oil industry in the Middle East, which will cause a sharp rise in oil prices. If they rise to $60 a barrel, that would be a great threat for the economies of the West.

The Economist magazine (translation of the article is published in Russky Fokus) answers the question of why Russia is friends with Iraq and Iran: “For money.” Russia still hopes to recover the billions that Iraq owes it in Soviet-era debts, and “like France and other countries, it is preparing the ground for concluding new oil contracts when the sanctions are lifted.”

Russia’s participation in the construction of a nuclear power station in Iran is also drawing a negative reaction from the West. The Economist says, “Some Russian officials are still convinced that what’s bad for the US is good for Russia, and vice versa; and they would gladly advise Putin to forget about Bush.”

However, The Economist advises the Russian president, “Putin should seek trade and investment opportunities to restore the Russian economy in the US and Europe, instead of Tehran and Baghdad.” With a correct political course, Russia would have a chance to be admitted as an equal partner in the West and to stop being “an outsider that can only cause problems.” However, the British magazine believes there is still a possibility that Russia will lose the chance.

But Russia is far from an open confrontation with the West: in the course of the recent negotiations, Iraq and Russian foreign ministers discussed not the $40 billion contract, but ways to avoid the US attack. Moscow made it clear to Baghdad that it will not exacerbate its relations with the US for the sake of potential and rather doubtful benefits. Kommersant notes, the only result of the negotiations was confirmation of Moscow’s prior position: Russia insists on the return of UN inspectors to Iraq, in exchange for lifting the international sanctions. Moreover, when asked whether Russia will use its veto right if the US requests the UN Security Council to approve a military operation, Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov gave a very evasive answer.

Kommersant says that the visit of the Iraqi foreign minister to Moscow is easy to explain: “Any negotiations of such type are able to ‘pump up’ a little the image of a large toughly managed oil company, which Iraq in fact is, in the eyes of its competitors.”

The tactics of the US are also understandable: “It is preparing for air strikes, and the aim of the preparations is a sharp drop in Iraq’s value, so that it would be possible to buy it after the collapse.” The only question is “Why does Russia need this?” According to Kommersant observer Andrei Kolesnikov, “The real reason for Russia’s intricate politics is bad management.”

The Vremya MN magazine says that Moscow is willing to prevent the war, but it does not have the capacity to do so.

The West is not enthusiastic about Russia’s interest in problematic countries and their leaders, like Saddam Hussein or Kim Jong Il. The magazine says Kim Jong Il is sometimes being described by the media as “another Gorbachev”. It is assumed that settling relations with the North Korean leader will help lead him to democratic changes – which is rather doubtful, especially given the sad experience of such changes in Russia.

Another reason for developing links with North Korea is economic benefits. However, the magazine notes, all the projects usually discussed, such as modernizing metals plants and the seaport at Rajan, and coal supplies from Yakutia, have been discussed for many years already but never been implemented – as North Korea can’t afford to do this. It has been in default since 1987. The USSR $1 billion in subsidies to North Korea each year, but today North Korea is unable even to repay its debts, or even discuss the issue.

Apparently, Kim Jong Il is uninterested in bilateral cooperation or the Russian reforms. He is only interested in “Russia’s political support and in the possibility of buying Russian weapons.” Undoubtedly, he will find the money for that.

That is why Novoye Vremya considers that the advances of the Russian president to the North Korean regime are rather strange, and it would be much more reasonable to be “as realistic and tough as Moscow is in relations with another dictator, Belarussian President Lukashenko.”

However, Russia seems to have realized the need to be pragmatic and realistic in its contacts with “exotic regimes”.

Recently, Izvestia published sensational news about a meeting between Russian

diplomat Andrei Kroshkin and Intifak Kandar, a representative of the Iraqi National Congress, a movement opposed to Saddam Hussein.

The Russian Foreign Ministry officially explained that the US promised Russia that if it supports the anti-Saddam operation, the new Iraqi leaders will continue all profitable oil contracts with the Russian oil companies.

Izvestia thinks this means that Russia “is seriously thinking about an alternative to Saddam Hussein.” Consequently, the question of whether another Operation Desert Storm will start is becoming more and more vital.