Baghdad waited only three days last week before rejecting a British/Dutch proposal to finally lift economic sanctions against Iraq in exchange for new inspections into its ability to produce weapons of mass destruction. Thus the impasse between Iraq and other nations goes on. Few observers doubt that the regime led by Saddam Hussein has continued to try and produce chemical, nuclear and biological weapons, as U.N. inspectors, before Saddam expelled them, caught his regime doing time and again. Few doubt, either, that without comprehensive inspections to control his efforts they will eventually succeed.

Without inspections, the only levers to try and contain Iraq are economic sanctions and air strikes. Thus far, neither has proved to be an effective tool to curb Saddam’s development of weapons of mass destruction. Yet the United States and its sole military ally in the campaign against Iraq, the United Kingdom, go on paying a high international political price for using both.

Saddam, for one, is confident that they will eventually grow tired and give up. “[T]he longer the arm stretches, the weaker it becomes,” he said this month in a speech to Iraqi military commanders. “We are close to the day when the enemy itself will declare that it has no other choice but to leave.”

Four days before Saddam’s speech in Baghdad, Assistant Secretary of State Martin Indyk said the opposite in Washington. “[A]s long as he is around, we will contain Saddam,” he told the House International Relations Committee.

But what no Clinton administration official can explain is how anyone plans to effectively control Saddam without inspections. The Clinton administration has made the removal of Saddam from power an explicit aim of the United States. Congress is in agreement, and has allocated at least $97 million for the Iraqi opposition. This plan in its present form, however, has little chance of success.
Will the allies give up on Hussein?

No trust

That is because the group within the Iraqi opposition that represents the most Iraqis and that has long posed the greatest threat to Saddam’s regime is now alienated from the United States.

Since 1968, Iraq’s ruling Ba’ath party regime, like previous Iraqi regimes including the monarchy, has been dominated by Sunni Arabs like Saddam, even though they comprise a minority of only about 17{2ef06ca992448c50a258763a7da34b197719f7cbe0b72ffbdc84f980e5f312af} of Iraq’s population. Meanwhile, Sunni Kurds, who comprise perhaps 20{2ef06ca992448c50a258763a7da34b197719f7cbe0b72ffbdc84f980e5f312af} of Iraqis, and Shi’a Arabs, who comprise at least 60{2ef06ca992448c50a258763a7da34b197719f7cbe0b72ffbdc84f980e5f312af} of Iraqis, have each long been excluded from power.

Indyk told Congress that the administration seeks “to change the regime in Iraq” to one that “can represent fairly the concerns of all of Iraq’s communities.” The dilemma no policy-maker will address, however, is how any representative government could continue excluding Iraq’s Shi’a majority from power — yet that seems to be what the United States is aiming to do.

Bayan Jabr, a representative of the Supreme Assembly of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, told Reuters last week in Beirut that the West wants to use Shi’as only as “decorations” in the anti-Saddam coalition. Another Supreme Assembly representative, Hamid Al-Bayati, was noticeably absent from eight Iraqi opposition group representatives who traveled to Washington last month to meet officials including Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. The falling out between the United States and the Supreme Assembly comes less than one year after Supreme Assembly representatives made their first trip to Washington to meet with mid-level American officials. Now they clearly distrust each other.

The Shi’a question

How to deal with Iraq’s Shi’a majority is a key question that has so far been surprisingly absent from the Iraq policy debate. The fact is that most Iraqis are Shi’a Arabs, and the men who claim to represent them now seem to loathe Saddam only little more than they do the United States. Of course the fear is mutual, as the Supreme Assembly is a coalition of Shi’a clerics based in Tehran who have long been ambiguous about their intentions for Iraq.

The Clinton administration is already presuming the worst, as its liaison with the Iraqi opposition, Frank Ricciardone, seems to have reached out to every other Iraqi group but the Supreme Assembly. The problem is that most of these groups long have been based in exile in London or elsewhere in the West, and only a few of them have ever mounted any military activities back in Iraq. The Supreme Assembly has within it Islamic Action, the Awakening and other groups that have long waged armed struggle against Saddam’s regime.

Back in 1991, two days after the end of fighting in the Gulf War and the same day that George Bush urged Iraqis to overthrow Saddam, Shi’a clerics throughout southern Iraq declared an intifada, sparking a month-long insurrection that eventually spread as well to the Kurdish-populated areas of Northern Iraq. But the Bush administration merely watched by satellites as Saddam’s forces decimated the insurgents everywhere with tanks, multiple-rocket-launchers and helicopter gunships.

Tens of thousands of Iraqis died fighting the regime, while thousands more perished far more painfully later in Saddam’s jails. Since the intifada, Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq have been too plagued by infighting to effectively challenge Saddam’s regime, while small groups in southern Iraq have enjoyed more success. In December 1996, the Awakening attacked Saddam’s eldest son, Uday, crippling him. In November 1998, unknown assailants made an unsuccessful attempt against Izat Ibrahim, who has long been vice president of the Revolutionary Council and Saddam’s second-in-command.

Iraqi Shi’as have good reason to loathe Saddam’s regime, as he has repeatedly squandered Shi’a men in battle. Saddam’s officer corps, like the ranks of his various elite troops, are dominated by Sunni Arabs who share a stake in maintaining the ethnic hegemony of his regime, while the vast majority of Iraq’s rank-and-file soldiers have long been Shi’as. They suffered Iraq’s highest casualties in both the Iran-Iraq War and the Gulf War.

“Why do we kill? Why did we go to war with Iran?” one Shi’a soldier being held as a POW in Zakho by Kurdish rebels said on camera at the peak of the 1991 intifada, before he led fellow prisoners along with their Kurdish captors to chant, “Down with Saddam!”

Many Iraqi Shi’as are loyal instead to Iraq’s Shi’a clerics. While many revered clerics are already in exile in Tehran, others have struggled on in Southern Iraq. In February, unidentified assailants killed the Grand Ayatollah, Mohammed Sadiq Al-Sadr, along with his two sons in a drive-by shooting, 100 miles south of Baghdad. He was the third Shi’a cleric over the past year to be so murdered. Shi’as spontaneously poured out into the streets protesting Saddam in not only Baghdad, but also in Beirut and in Tehran, where the Iranian hardliner, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, blamed Saddam for Al-Sadr’s slaying, saying “the strangulation of Shi’a Muslims in that country has reached a climax.”

What about self-determination?

For the United States, the argument against backing groups like the Supreme Assembly is that they are likely to become fundamentalist allies of Iran if they come to power. But if the United States goes on excluding Iraq’s Shia majority from its plans for a post-Saddam Iraq, then that Iraq will certainly be anti-Western, and maybe fundamentalist as well, when and if they do govern the Tigris-Euphrates valley.

The final irony of the administration’s Iraq policy is that it is now unabashedly inconsistent with the administration’s moralist campaign in Yugoslavia, as it fails to apply its newly embraced principle of self-determination, not to mention democracy, to Iraq. Meanwhile, as Saddam says, our stretched arm only tires.

Frank Smyth covered the post-Gulf War Kurdish uprising in northern Iraq for The Economist, the Village Voice and CBS News before being captured by Iraqi Army Special Forces. His Voice story, “Tragedy in Iraq,” was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.