South African President Thabo Mbeki says his country will send weapons experts to Iraq to assist Baghdad with its U.N.-mandated disarmament. Mr. Mbeki made the announcement during his annual state of the nation address.
The South African experts are to assist the Iraqi government to draft legislation and to offer assistance to the United Nations weapons inspectors charged with ensuring Iraq's compliance with U.N. resolutions. Mr. Mbeki says they will draw from South Africa's experience in dismantling its own weapons of mass destruction.
"As we speak, a number of our citizens are preparing to travel to Iraq," he announced. "These are the experts who led our country's program to destroy our nuclear, chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction, as well as the missiles for the delivery of these weapons in conditions of war. The work they did has now resulted in the South African example of disarmament being recognized internationally as an example of best international practice."
There is deep concern in South Africa that a war in Iraq will have long term negative consequences for the Middle East and for countries in Africa - especially for development programs in those regions. The South African president says his country's effort to help Iraq comply with U.N. resolutions is in the cause of international peace.
"We have done all this because we prefer peace to war. We have taken the positions we have, not to oppose or support any country, nor to seek any glory," he said. "We have done what we have because, as South Africans and Africans, we know the pain of war and the immeasurable value of peace."
But Mr. Mbeki's speech disappointed those who were hoping he would urge a return to democracy in neighboring Zimbabwe. He made few remarks on Zimbabwe, and they broke no new ground. He said his government will continue to promote dialogue in Zimbabwe to assist that country in resolving it's own problems.
And Tony Leon, leader of the Democratic Alliance, the official opposition in parliament, said Mr. Mbeki failed to devote enough attention to the big issues facing South Africa including HIV / AIDS.
"So, I felt, on the big issues, crime, on AIDS - there is a march about to take place on parliament - and AIDS got one-sentence-treatment," he said.
In his speech, Mr. Mbeki reminded parliament and the country that South Africa will soon enter the final year of its first decade of democracy, and he outlined the achievements of the past nine years. He said the economy, currently one of the best performers internationally, is now starting to reap the benefits of tough financial policies and developmental efforts to overcome the legacies of the past.
However, the president also warned South Africans that they cannot rest on their laurels. He said much work still lies ahead to reduce poverty, and to improve health, education and basic services for all citizens.