Fresh Approach Needed in Seeking Saddam’s Demise

Modern military history will record Saddam Hussein uniquely. In the 1990-91 Gulf War, he cynically inverted the conventional concepts of tactical and strategic thinking. Saddam never planned on defeating US-led coalition forces, so he needlessly sacrificed tens of thousands of largely inexperienced troops while saving both much tactical firepower and his best ground combatants. These later became strategic assets in putting down the domestic insurgents which he predicted would follow.

Saddam alone thought he could survive all the above. He outsmarted everyone by lowering the bar to a point beneath which only he could crawl. Although UN Secretary General Kofi Annan brokered an agreement in February with Saddam, few people have much faith in it. The world still begs the question: ‘What should be done about him?’

A change of posture

While some US observers (notably Richard N. Haas, a former Bush administration national security advisor, and James A. Baker III, the same administration’s secretary of state) advocate staying the course and relying on bombing as the main military lever, other observers (from Edward G Shirley, the pseudonym for a former CIA case officer in Iran, to Henry Kissinger, the former secretary of state) have begun to rethink their presumptions about Saddam and his neighbours.

Some Clinton administration officials, too, are now re-examining their outlook on Southwest Asia. The Clinton administration’s first secretary of state, Warren Christopher, who had previously negotiated the 1981 release of US diplomats held hostage by Iran, never overcame his own personal hostility toward Tehran. Similarly, Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright has lambasted Iran for being a ‘rogue’ sponsor of terrorism, but now the administration, led by National Security Council advisor Bruce Riedel, is cautiously warming to Iran following several positive overtures from its newly elected president.

One question that remains in developing any new policy toward the region is what role would be played by the CIA. Since the Gulf War, all the agency’s anti-Saddam efforts have failed. The agency suffered another embarrassment in late February. During the Clinton administration’s stand-off with Saddam, a 36-year-old CIA Inspector General’s report about the 1961 Cuban Bay of Pigs invasion was finally released. The report accused the CIA of: unmitigated and almost willful bumbling and disaster: and concluded that future covert operations should be conducted by the US DoD. Some officials say the recommendation remains relevant.

Regardless of which institution should carry out covert operations, many observers say US policy may change. The strategy of simultaneously trying to contain both Iraq and Iran has been driving Western military thinking in the Gulf since at least 1988 and the end of the Iran-Iraq war. It has failed to control Iraq, however, while Iran has begun to moderate according to its own dynamic. Iran’s internal situation, of course, remains too volatile to call. Nonetheless, President Khatami was elected by a younger generation of people demanding more freedom. A direct descendant of the prophet Mohammed, Khatami also advocates a foreign policy which, while consistent with Islamic religious views, does not necessarily seek Islamist political expansion.

Meanwhile, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s spiritual leader who was chosen by the country’s highest Islamic clerics, still commands respect from fundamentalists of all ages. Another descendant of Mohammed, Ayatollah Khamenei continues to call the USA ‘The Great Satan’ and opposes relaxing the state’s strict imposition of Shari’a law. He and his followers are responsible for Iran’s backing of Islamist rebels in Israeli-occupied territories and Lebanon, Islamist movements in Bahrain and other Gulf states and Islamist regimes as far away as Khartoum. (Iraq, too, backs Sudan’s regime.) The old guard has also been driving Iran’s effort to acquire ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction.

What is new in Iran is that diverse opinions are being expressed daily in the press and sometimes, too, in the streets. Western leaders should watch the debate closely; they need to avoid taking action that might tip it in favour of the old guard. One thing Iranians agree about en masse is that they oppose any more bombing of Iraq, although at the same time they want Saddam to comply with the UN verification mission. Iran knows Saddam might use weapons of mass destruction if he had them. He has already used chemical weapons, including mustard gas, three times against Iran, from 1983 to 1987. In 1988, Saddam also gassed Iraqi Kurds.

A united front

If one were to form any new multi-lateral coalition against Saddam it would be rooted in realpolitik: everyone who truly knows Saddam — including his neighbours and his own people — hate him more than they hate anybody else. The underlying flaw in the Clinton administration’s current strategy is narrow-mindedness. President Clinton needs a long-term strategy, even though it might outlast him. The USA needs to acknowledge that its own experience with bombing, from Vietnam to El Salvador, demonstrates mainly hubris, and everyone interested in countering Saddam needs to be mindful that effective military strategies often involve many actors and options.

One option might be a tactical alliance with Iran, which shares a 600-mile-long border with Iraq. An objective might be to enlist Iran’s help in trying to revive what is left of the Iraqi opposition. The notion, of course, is fraught with caveats (not to mention the ghosts of the past) but while the world cautiously watches Iran, it is not too early to reassess the military balance, how Saddam has managed to survive for so long and how a tactical alliance with Iran might matter.

Optimistic assumptions

Heady days followed the Gulf War after Saddam had been driven out of Kuwait. All President Bush thought he needed to do was suggest that Saddam be gone and, like magic, he was supposed to vanish. General Norman Schwarzkopf negotiated the terms of a cease-fire as if it didn’t matter. The US field commander was worried about coalition forces. He grounded Saddam’s fixed-wing aircraft, but allowed him to continue flying helicopters. He did so after Saddam said he needed them to transport his wounded to hospitals and his representatives to the ongoing talks.

The USA still wanted Saddam out of power, even though the US-led coalition never had authority to remove him, so President Bush tried to provoke a coup. On 1 March 1991, two days after Saddam had yielded in the Gulf War, President Bush urged the Iraqi people “to put him aside” and bring Iraq “back into the family of peace-loving nations”. The people Bush had in mind were officials close to Saddam, mainly Arab Sunnis like him in Baghdad in the ruling Ba’ath party and the military, but they failed to act. Instead, many Kurds in the north and Arab Shi’ites in the south revolted. Some Kurds, especially, were so hopeful that many couples gave the first name ‘Bush’ to their newborn children.

Indeed, on 1 March Islamist Shi’ite clerics in southern Iraq called for insurrection. Within days, Shi’ite rebels had taken Basra near the Kuwaiti border and fighting had broken out in nearly every southern city. Soon rebels controlled An-Nasiriyah, Al-Amarah, An-Najaf and Karbala, 50 miles south of Baghdad. By 11 March, when exiled Iraqi opposition leaders gathered in Lebanon with Saudi financing and under Syrian guard, the rebels had already lost Karbala and An-Najaf but were still holding ground in those cities and others, said Abdul Aziz Al-Hakim in Beirut, a rebel courier fresh from Tehran. “The intifada even has its own newspapers”: Al-Hurrija (Freedom) and Al-Nida (the Call).

A unique Iraqi exile opposition conference took place in West Beirut’s Bristol Hotel over three days. Everyone presumed Saddam would be overthrown; opposition leaders and foreign intelligence liaisons competed for influence. The CIA, along with Saudi Arabia, was then backing the Free Iraqi Council (FIC) led by Saad A. Jaber. Like him, most FIC members were both Sunnis and ex-monarchists who had lived for decades in London. Meanwhile, Iran was backing Shi’ites led by Islamic clerics, while Syria and Iran were each helping the Kurds. Although the FIC fielded no military force, its members were already planning to form a government-in-exile by themselves in Riyadh.

However, while they squabbled, many Shi’ites and Kurds fought. On 14 March Kurdish guerrillas in northern Iraq launched what they, too, called the intifada, or ‘shaking off’. For a brief time, both of Iraq’s main Kurdish factions, along with the smaller Kurdish wing of the Iraqi Communist Party, were united along a broad front. Regular Iraqi forces, after several days of heavy fighting, collapsed entirely. Days before the intifada soldiers began abandoning their posts by the dozens. Once it began, 100-man units began surrendering together. Within a week, the joint Kurdish forces had liberated Iraq’s Kurdish-speaking areas and held all of northern Iraq except for the predominantly Arab town of Mosul.

By then, however, the Shi’ite rebellion in the sough had already been snuffed out, although word of it only trickled north slowly. In the south, Saddam’s army special forces and Republican Guards had surrounded each rebel-occupied city and then attacked them one by one. Some Iraqi units had reportedly been backed by helicopter gunships By 20 March, the last city still under rebel control, As-Samawah, fell. Survivors said that in the battle’s final hours Saddam’s units advanced behind a human shield of captured Shi’ite women.

Kurdish control over the north went unchallenged for one more week until 28 March in Kirkuk, where Saddam Began his northern counter-offensive. Everything changed after dawn. Thousands of Kurds, guerrillas and civilians, were still in the city. Incoming artillery and tank shells shook the ground, first claiming the life of a young girl on her bicycle. “This is Saddam Hussein,” yelled one man who knew her. “Mr. Bush must know.” Soon several small helicopters broke the sky. They opened up with machine buns as the guerrillas returned fire with anti-aircraft guns. Kurdish guerrillas pulled out just two SA-7 surface-to-air missiles, the only such weapons at their disposal. The shells were now becoming more accurate and tanks were closing in on the town. By about noon, the smaller helicopters were joined by four or five Mi-24 ‘Hind’ helicopter gunships. Glistening like angry hornets, they fired machine guns and unloaded seemingly endless volleys of exploding rockets. The gunships provided crucial air cover for dozens of advancing tanks. Meanwhile, Kurds were dying all around. Several Katyusha multiple-rocket launchers dropped a blanket of fire on feeing guerrillas and civilians. It was a bright, sunny day; the Bush administration was watching via satellite.

Kirkuk was taken by 2:00 pm, not by Republican guards but by Saddam’s army special forces. It took them both only three more days to crush the rest of the Kurdish rebellion as thousands of Kurds fled into the mountains bordering Turkey and Iran. They panicked as rumours spread that Saddam was using chemical weapons. He didn’t use them this time, although racism has always been part of his equation. “These dirty people “is how one army special forces’ commander angrily described Kurds to captured journalists. During the Kurdish exodus, many ‘Bush’ babies died of exposure. The Bush administration began Operation ‘Provide Comfort’ in northern Iraq to protect civilians as well as guerrillas. Nothing changed for years.

Another opposition

The CIA, having already failed once, eventually tried again to manipulate the opposition. By 1992 the FIC had been replaced by the Iraqi National Congress (INC). It was still dominated by London exiles, but was this time led by another one: Ahmed Chalabi, a moderate Shi’ite. The CIA gave $ 15 million in covert aid to the INC, which used part of it to establish a headquarters in Irbil within the US-protected ‘comfort zone’. However, the INC never fielded any force either; Chalabi claims the agency ordered the INC not to engage in any combat but instead to try and unite feuding Kurdish guerrilla factions.

Although they had been allied during the intifada, rival Kurdish leaders Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani have never trusted each. (Barzani leads the democratic Party of Kurdistan, while Talabani leads the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.) Since the intifada, they have clashed over contraband as well as politics. Tension had flared so much by August 1996 that they went to war. To enhance his strength, Barzani, a clan-based leader who inherited the role from his father, made a deal with Saddam, who promptly joined forces with him against Talabani. Thus swung open the door for Saddam into the ‘comfort zone’. In addition to fighting Talabani’s men, he quickly dismantled the INC’s headquarters and hunted down, tortured and later killed any of its associates who didn’t escape.

The CIA has since cut off support to the INC, although the agency continues to back another group, the Iraqi National Accord (INA), led by Ayad Alawi (see JIR, October 1997). Although Alawi, like the INC’s Chalabi, is a moderate Shi’ite, the majority of the people he represents are Sunnis. Most are also former Ba’ath party loyalists who were once close to Saddam. Since 1996, they have broadcast an anti-Saddam radio into Iraq from Amman, thus hoping to provoke a coup, but Saddam has long guarded against this contingency and has regularly purged his ranks to retain power. In fact, Saddam purged many of the same people now in the INA from the Ba’ath party years ago to avoid a coup. To further deter one, he recently created a new security force; it is overseen by his youngest son, Qusay.

None of these groups has executed any significant military action against Saddam since the intifada. One opposition group in Baghdad, however, has attacked. Al-Nahdah (The Awakening) was formed back in 1991 by underground students who, according to The Independence, joined forces years later with one of Saddam’s distant relatives, Ra’ad al-Hazaa. He turned against Saddam over the murder of his uncle, General Omar al-Hazaa; back in 1990, Saddam killed the uncle, after cutting out his tongue, for criticising him. In revenge, Ra’ad, six years later, gave Al-Nahdah details about the arrival of Saddam’s son Uday at a ‘girls’ party’. Al-Nahdah’s December 1996 assault left Uday a paraplegic.

This incident shows that at least some Iraqis still independently seek to oust Saddam. Nonetheless, the opposition could hardly be more divided. Take the INC: its members are spread out, with Chalabi in London, Kurdish leader Talabani in northern Iraq and Akram al-Hakim are each still receiving help from Iran. Although together they aspire to revive the opposition, the INC today has no viable plan.

Meanwhile, Barzani, Turkey and Saddam now comprise a strange, new military axis. Turkey’s main concern in northern Iraq relates to its own separatist Kurdish guerrillas in the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK); since 1995, Turkey has inflicted great losses on the PKK and has largely driven it out of Turkey into northern Iraq. In pursuing the PKK, Turkey has made an alliance with Iraqi Kurdish leader Barzani, who has also been allied with Saddam. The PKK, Barzani’s Kurdish rival Talabani and Iran comprise the contrary axis.

Saddam also faces less hostility elsewhere in the region. Although Jordan has moved from being sympathetic to Saddam during the Gulf War to hosting an anti-Saddam radio today, most of Iraq’s other neighbours have grown warmer toward Baghdad. After hosting US-led coalition forces during the Gulf War, Saudi Arabia in February refused the US request to bomb Iraq from its territory. Similarly, Syria, which backed various Kurdish factions during the intifada, re-opened trade and contacts with Iraq last year over many factors, including joint military exercises between Turkey and Israel.

Mastering the art of ‘divide and conquer’

Saddam survives less from military prowess than from political mastery of the ‘divide and conquer’ game. One question that many both within and outside the Clinton administration are now asking is whether to try and reverse that game. Nearly all of Saddam’s neighbours would prefer an Iraq without him. If the intifada is any indication, so would most Iraqis. Any clear, concrete plan to oust Saddam would attract the interest of many groups and states.

Notwithstanding the political obstacles yet to be overcome, Iran could offer several advantages to any insurgency campaign. Iran and Iraq have a common Shi’ite population linked through mountain passes south of the Iranian city of Ilam into Iraq’s Tigris river valley. Similarly, Iran has long had influence over northeastern Iraq around the mountain city of Sulaymaniyah. Iraq’s own demographics, too, work against Saddam. About two-thirds of Iraqis are Arab Shi’ites concentrated in southern Iraq; about a fifth of Iraqis are Kurdish Sunnis, who identify themselves first as Kurdish, in northern Iraq. Together, they comprise four-fifths of Iraq’s population.

However, the USA and many other states still fear the consequences of either of Iraq’s main ethnic groups coming to power. Turkey, Iran and Syria each also have disenfranchised Kurds who might be tempted to secede from their states should any independent Kurdish entity anywhere ever be established. Turkey, in particular, opposes any more autonomy in northern Iraq by Kurds. Similarly, the USA, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other states would all oppose any government in Baghdad backed by Iran, still fearing Iranian-backed Islamist expansion throughout the region.

Of course, Iran’s participation in any US-supported movement against Saddam would be contingent upon its further moderation, but Iran has already taken positive steps: President Khatami was elected last May; in November Iran ratified a US-backed treaty banning chemical weapons; and in December Iran hosted a conference of Islamic nations that resulted in a joint communiqué additionally called for “the eradication of all weapons of mass destruction in the Middle east”. In January, speaking to CNN, President Khatami expressed regret for the 1979 US Embassy siege in Tehran and said he hoped that the door could be opened to cultural and sports exchanges with the USA. A month later, the American flag was raised in Tehran for the first time in 19 years without catching fire when five US wrestlers there were enthusiastically cheered. More recently, Iran has begun cracking down on the smuggling of Iraqi diesel fuel into Iran in violation of the UN embargo.

A broadening of options and allies

Any future plans to bomb Iraq would only strengthen Iran’s old guard. Similarly, the policy of relying on bombing as the only potential military lever against Saddam has only strengthened him — politically — so far. It has also drawn harsh criticism form France, Russia and Saudi Arabia among others. Even Iraqi opposition leaders question any unilateral plan to bomb. Instead, Al-Hakim and other leaders want the Clinton administration to co-ordinate its military efforts with indigenous opposition forces. Unless the USA and others are willing to live with Saddam indefinitely, the US administration must broaden its options as well as its allies. Of all the issues facing both countries, the desire for an Iraq without Saddam is what Iran and the USA have most in common. Both want Saddam to comply with the UN verification mission. If Saddam fails to comply, Americans, Iranians and Iraqis alike may together need to find a way to respond.