Culture Clash

Although East Africa was the site of three out of the four major attacks exchanged since 7 August between US and apparently pan-Islamist forces, the region itself has been painted as merely being a battleground of opportunity for anti-US bombers. However, even before President Clinton’s decision to strike targets in Sudan as well as in Afghanistan, the USA and Osama Bin Ladin, the wealthy Saudi whom Clinton administration officials blame for the twin bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, have been backing different warring sides in East Africa.

Sudan contains the headwaters of the Blue and White Nile rivers, which run north from nearly the Great Lakes to the Great Sahara. Islamic groups have long followed their valleys south into black Africa. More recently, Sudan’s National Islamic Front (NIF) government has tried to expand Islam toward the Great Lakes and the Horn. NIF leaders do not believe they can survive alone, so they have backed radical Islamist and even fundamentalist Christian groups against most of their neighbours. At the same time, the NIF has collaborated with bin Laden to provide sanctuary as well as training to radical Islamist groups operating worldwide. According to one former Sudanese military intelligence agent interviewed last year in the region, trainees came from as far away as the Philippines. Meanwhile, Iran and Iraq have each also backed the NIF.

The USA, along with its East African allies, has sought to check the influence of Sudan and its allies. The Kenyan capital of Nairobi, the site of one of the embassy bombings, has become the locus of US activity in the region. The US embassy there, besides providing offices for diplomats assigned to the Clinton administration’s mission to Kenya, has also supported diplomats and other personnel assigned to the US mission to Sudan. The administration closed its embassy in Khartoum in February 1996 because officials feared that it might be a target for Islamist groups. Three months later the NIF finally expelled bin Laden in response to Saudi as well as US pressure, but the NIF continued to back radical Islamist groups and others against its neighbours.

Nairobi has also become the site of the largest CIA station in East Africa. Soon after withdrawing with other US personnel from Khartoum, officers from the CIA and other US intelligence agencies began establishing sophisticated eavesdropping posts around Sudan with the co-operation of many bordering countries. By then, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Uganda had formed a coalition of front-line states against the NIF. Eritrea invited the leaders of the Sudanese opposition to take over the Sudanese embassy in Asmara, while Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Uganda each stepped up their support for Sudanese rebels, providing sanctuary as well as arms.

Escalation, not initiation

Although it has received scant attention anywhere, partly because the debate has been held almost entirely behind closed doors within the Washington beltway, the Clinton administration for at least the past two years, has been trying to undermine if not overthrow the NIF regime. “We want to compel change in how Sudan is governed,” said one White House advisor flatly just months before East Africa’s twin bombings. “To be more relevant in achieving our objective,” the advisor added, the administration has been backing the entire anti-NIF coalition. Last year, the Clinton administration promised the coalition’s front-line states US$20 million in non-lethal aid in what stands as the largest military aid package to Africa since the Cold War. This April, according to one high-level participant, the administration sent an interagency team to Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda to explore more anti-NIF “humanitarian, development, political, diplomatic, military, and intelligence options”.

Last year, during the rainy season, the author travelled north from Uganda into southern Sudan, much of which has long been controlled by the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Army. Journalists were told not to photograph hundreds of new green wooden crates. A few open ones contained rocket-propelled grenades. Each crate had stencilled white letters saying that they had been shipped to the Ugandan Defence Ministry via the Tanzanian port at Dar es Salaam. [The author made this trip in part for the Human Rights Watch Arms Division. Its newly released report on Sudan is available at, although the author alone is responsible for this JIR report.

Rogue state

Although only 70 percent of Sudan’s population are (Sunni) Muslims, the NIF, after it seized power through a 1989 military coup, imposed Shari’a law nationwide. Besides bin Laden, the NIF’s closest foreign allies have been those erstwhile adversaries, Iran and Iraq. Tehran sent mainly political advisors, while Baghdad sent mainly military specialists, according to former Sudanese military officers who defected to the guerrillas.

Iran’s role peaked in 1992 when Tehran sent thousands of advisors who helped restructure Sudan’s army, police and civil service. To better control dissent, they encouraged the NIF to purge more than 78,000 personnel from these services’ collective ranks. Iranian advisors also provided the formative training for the NIF’s Popular Defence Forces: lightly armed militia that are now active in Khartoum and many areas throughout the country.

Iraq’s role is far more ongoing. Up to 60 Iraqi military experts rotate into Khartoum about every six months, according to one of the former officers, an army captain. “About 20 of them were air force specialists including mechanics and pilots,” he said. Others were military technicians involved in some kind of “munitions development” at the Military Industries Complex in Khartoum.

The Clinton administration has just recently begun to claim that these Iraqis have been helping the NIF develop chemical weapons (CW). Journalists first started hearing such allegations from the Sudanese opposition in Asmara, the base for a loose coalition of leaders known as the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). For years, NDA leaders said that Iraqi technicians were working on such a project at the Military Industrial Complex in Khartoum and that Sudan was already storing CW for Iraq at the Yarmouk Military Manufacturing Complex in Sheggera, south of Khartoum. The same opposition leaders also claimed that Sudan had already used CW against rebel forces in the Nuba mountains and elsewhere in the southern half of the country. Opposition leaders even alleged that a group of Iraqis who hijacked an aircraft from Khartoum to London in 1996 were involved in Sudan’s CW project. These Iraqis, however (who were later convicted of the hijacking), were draft dodgers who feared deportation back to Baghdad; they had nothing to do with any Iraqi Government effort. In fact, no evidence to support any of the above claims has ever appeared.

Nowhere in their discussions or “fact sheets” did the opposition mention the El Shifa pharmaceutical factory north of Khartoum: the one recently demolished by US cruise missiles. The USA destroyed the El Shifa plant, along with alleged bin Laden training camps in Afghanistan, on 20 August, claiming that a soil sample clandestinely taken from near the El-Shifa plant showed traces of a rare chemical, O-ethyl methylphosphonothioic acid (Empta), used to make VX nerve agent. However, US officials have yet to make their evidence public.

So far no other evidence has appeared to substantiate their claim, although some independent observers have already rejected it. A British engineer, Tom Carnaffin, who helped oversee construction of the plant as a technical manager until its opening in 1996, told The Observer that it “just does not lend itself to the manufacture of chemical weapons.” Similarly, three Jordanian engineers who worked at the El Shifa plant until mid-1997 agree. “The factory was designed to make medicines,” said engineer Mohammad Abdul-Wahed at an Amman press conference. “It is impossible to change it to produce any other substance.”

Bin Ladin meets the Sudanese

Whatever the nature of Iraq’s as well as Iran’s support for Khartoum, Osama bin Laden, too, has been one of the NlF’s main backers. He built new roads for the regime, connecting the capital for the first time with the northern part of the country and, to the east, with Port Sudan on the Red Sea. Bin Laden has also collaborated with the NIF on several joint military endeavours. “It was Iranian diplomats who first introduced him to NIF leaders,” said the ex-Sudanese military intelligence agent. Although the NIF gave bin Laden a warm welcome when he arrived in Khartoum shortly after the Gulf War in 1991, its leaders never entirely trusted him. They instructed military intelligence agents, whose ostensible task was to cater for his needs, to keep an eye on him. Apparently, NIF leaders feared that bin Laden’s brand of Islamist radicalism was so extreme that it might even become a threat to them. Ironically, after monitoring bin Laden closely for four years, one of the NIF agents instead became an admirer.

Shortly after bin Laden left Khartoum, the ex-agent left the country too.

Bin Ladin’s own time in Khartoum, from 1991 to 1996, has only been part of a longer journey. The 17th of 52 children of one of Saudi Arabia’s wealthiest families, bin Laden, like many revolutionaries, was born into a world of privilege. His father, a construction magnate who founded the bin Laden group, acquired over $5 billion in assets building offices, homes and mosques for the royal House of Saud. Osama Bin Ladin’s own fortune today is estimated to be worth over $250 million.

Although Bin Ladin was just 16 when he first got involved with radical Islamist politics in Riyadh, it was the Soviet Union’s 1979 invasion of Afghanistan that radicalised him. Only days after it began, bin Laden, then 22, flew there to help organise the first Islamist guerrilla fighters, who later became known as the mojahedin. From around the world, young Muslim idealists like himself flocked to Afghanistan to join them. The number of foreign volunteers eventually grew to up to 20,000. Bin Ladin financed housing for them in Peshawar, Pakistan, just across the Khyber Pass. Inside Afghanistan, he bankrolled the Ma’sadat Al-Ansar military training camp, which trained both local and international volunteers.

Bin Ladin was not the mojahedin’s only foreign patron. The CIA, then directed by President Ronald Reagan, sought to “roll back” the Soviets out of Afghanistan, so it financed and armed the mojahedin throughout the 10-year conflict. Although Bin Ladin himself, according to all accounts, never had any direct relationship with the agency, he was a key leader of a broad movement that the CIA was firmly behind. Even the training camps that the Clinton administration claims to have recently destroyed in Afghanistan were, according to many reports, first established under the Reagan administration by the CLA.

Not content to merely help underwrite the movement, Bin Ladin personally fought in many battles, including the 1989 siege of Jalalabad: a key contest with the Soviets. Only months later the foreign communist forces withdrew in defeat. Bin Ladin still draws inspiration from this experience today. “The biggest benefit [of that campaign],” he told CNN in an interview from an undisclosed location in Afghanistan last year, “was that the myth of the superpower was destroyed.” Bin Ladin, incidentally, credits the mojahedin, as opposed to the Reagan administration, for crippling the Soviet Union enough to make it collapse. Regarding that other superpower, the United States, Bin Ladin frequently expresses confidence that he and his followers will repeat their giant-slaying.

After the Afghan war, Bin Ladin returned to Saudi Arabia a hero, but he quickly became disillusioned with the royal family. Like many Saudis, bin Laden complained that the House of Saud was economically corrupt and morally bankrupt. He fumed, especially, at what he saw as their subservience to the United States. Following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, the House of Saud allowed the US troops to deploy on its soil for Operation “Desert Storm.” The first US soldiers arrived on 7 August, 1990 — eight years before to the day that the two US embassies in East Africa were bombed. The US deployments outraged Bin Ladin. Saudi Arabia is the home of Mecca and Medina: the two most revered places within Islam. Today, over 4,000 US troops remain in Saudi Arabia: their ongoing presence remains a source of angst for many Saudis and other Muslims worldwide. To Islamist radicals, as was evidenced by the bombing of the US barracks at Khobar Towers on 25 June 1996, they are a target.

Building the camps

Shortly after the Gulf War, Bin Ladin moved with his four wives and an unknown number of children to Khartoum. In 1990, a year before he even arrived, according to the ex-intelligence agent, bin Laden began bringing mojahedin veterans to Khartoum. He later brought hundreds more. Many, comprised the core of his personal security force. Others became instructors at training camps he financed.

The largest camp was near Soba, 10 km south of Khartoum along the Blue Nile, said the ex-Sudanese military agent, who added that it was a highly restricted area of about 20 square acres. He added that Iranians who were previously based in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley were among the trainers, while the trainees came from Algeria, Tunisia, Bosnia, Chechnya, the Philippines, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Uganda, and Somalia.

Some of these groups have been especially active. Egypt’s Islamic Jihad Organisation is suspected of being behind the 1995 attempted assassination of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in Addis Ababa. The Organisation’s leader, al-Zawahri, recently called a newspaper in Pakistan to give a statement on bin Laden’s behalf; he is currently believed to be holding up with him in Afghanistan. Other groups like Eritrea’s Islamic Jihad have attacked civilians. This Organisation’s most comnon tactic is planting anti-tank mines, which have destroyed several passenger buses. Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army is another group that has terrorised civilians, and it frequently press-gangs even adolescent children. All of these groups have been armed by Sudan. Last year, plastic anti-tank mines discovered in Eritrea were identical in design and markings to anti-tank mines captured from NIF stocks just north of the Ugandan border.

These groups and others have trained at camps financed by bin Laden on Sudanese territory. According to the ex-Sudanese military intelligence agent, the instruction focused on three major areas. One was the fabrication of travel documents. The second was low-tech covert communications, from basic encryption to use of invisible ink. In light of recent events, however, it is the third area that may be among the most interesting: the use of small arms and explosives. The ex-agent said that bin Laden spent $15 million on one shipment of arms. It included Chinese and Iranian weapons, as well as Czechoslovakian explosives, which he was unable to identify further (Semtex, a Czech plastic explosive, is suspected of being used in at least the US embassy bombing in Nairobi).

The ex-agent also said that bin Laden, while in Khartoum. had formed a shadowy, pan-Islamist coalition involving many groups. He established an “advisory council” involving at least 43 separate Islamist groups from around the world. They included Egypt’s Islamic Group, Ethiopia’s Oromo Islamic Front, Eritrea’s Islamic Jihad, Uganda’s Islamic forces of Sheikh Abdullah. Algeria’s Islamic Salvation Front and the Philippines’ Moro Liberation Front, according to the ex-agent. Bin Laden himself admits to playing an international role, claiming in interviews to have sent Islamist combatants to Bosnia, Chechnya, Tajikistan and Somalia.

This Khartoum-based “advisory council” seems like a precursor to a smaller coalition of like-minded Islamist organisations which formed the World Islamic Front in February 1998. In announcing their formation, members of the World Islamic Front, including bin Laden, signed a religious decree, or fatwa, calling on Muslims “to kill the Americans and their allies — civilian and military”. Observers back in Langley, Virginia, at the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center noted that this was the first such fatwa to justify killing US civilians.

Bin Ladin admits his and his followers’ role in previously killing US soldiers. He told CNN in March 1997 that “Afghan Arabs” loyal to him played a role in 1983 attacks against US troops in Somalia, where a total of 30 US soldiers were killed. The ex-Sudanese agent confirmed this account, saying that bin Laden’s men “set up a base in Somalia and smuggled weapons to it from Ethiopia.” One US official who was in Somalia at the time says that it remains unclear whether US helicopters there were shot down with surface-to-air missiles or just rocket-propelled grenades.

The current climate in Khartoum

Sudan finally expelled Osama Bin Ladin in May 1996 in response to US and Saudi pressure. He has since gone to Afghanistan, which is now controlled by the ultra-fundamentalist Taliban regime — perhaps bin Laden’s only remaining refuge. What kind of ties Sudan and others still have with bin Laden remains in question. The NIF has tried to distance itself from him, although he still has investments and other commercial interests in Khartoum (yet there is no evidence that he has any connection to the recently destroyed El-Shifa pharmaceutical factory as Clinton administration officials have claimed).

While the NIF has continued to back various Islamist groups from Africa and elsewhere, its leaders have also recently begun to express interest in negotiating with both the USA and anti-NIF Sudanese rebel leaders. It is worth noting, too, that before the Clinton administration attacked the El-Shifa plant in Khartoum, along with targets in Afghanistan, Sudan had denounced the bombings of the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam as unacceptable terrorist acts. Sudan even offered to help US investigators find the bombers. Even after the US strike on Khartoum, the NIF leader and Parliament speaker Hassan Turabi predicted that, despite their recent history of animosity, relations between Sudan and the USA were likely to improve. “I don’t think it will take too long,” he added.

Iran has also begun to tone down much of its anti-US rhetoric. Its leaders quickly denounced the US embassy bombings, although they have since denounced the US strikes on Sudan and Afghanistan as well. While Iran remains on the US State Department’s list of countries which sponsor terrorism, the country has at least begun to change since the election of the moderate President Mohammad Khatami last year. And although Iran had a strong presence in Khartoum throughout the early 1990s, its role in recent years has clearly diminished.

Iraq, however, maintains strong ties with Sudan, and NIF leaders apparently no longer care who knows it. The day after the Clinton administration attacked the El-Shifa plant in Khartoum. Sudan’s foreign minister, Mustafa Osman Ismail, flew to Baghdad for consultations.

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.

Rwanda’s Butchers: the Interahamwe and Former Rwandan Army

Special Report No 13

Military history will record the Interahamwe and allied Rwandan soldiers uniquely. Back in April 1994, they achieved a dramatic tactical success, while failing entirely in their strategic vision. When faced with having to share power both with a Tutsi guerrilla movement (RPF) and with moderate Hutu politicians, their leaders decided that if they could just eliminate both elements they could stay in power. Over the ensuing weeks, they and their followers successfully managed to kill about 800,000 people, including nearly all of Rwanda’s moderate Hutu political activists and at least half of the country’s then-resident Tutsi population. Yet, they still lost the war.

Today, the propensity of the surviving Interahamwe and former Rwandan Army elements to carry out seemingly irrational acts of terrorism should not be underestimated. Even before they embarked on genocide, these same forces were responsible for a wave of bombings of civilian markets as well as landmines left on rural roads. These killed mostly their own fellow Hutus in the cynical hope that Hutu survivors would blame these attacks on Tutsis.

Isolated now in the jungles of central Zaire, the Interahamwe and former Rwandan forces have nowhere to go. Collective starvation, like death from disease, is a palpable scenario. These forces are unlikely to allow any of the civilians still travelling with them to leave. And they still may have access to funds from radical supporters in the diaspora, and could use them to buy arms either through or from the Zairian Army. And unlike the latter, the Interahamwe and former Rwandan combatants now have nothing to lose by fighting.

The Interahamwe and their allies are well-supplied with small arms, including Kalashnikov, R-4 and Belgian FN assault rifles, FN MAG Belgian machine guns, RPG-7 grenade launchers, hand grenades, and mortars. These forces have also used landmines and South African No 2 mines modeled upon the US Claymore.

Rwanda’s Intervention in Zaire?

Special Report No 13

The ADFL and the RPA share a community of interest as well as experience. Both represent Tutsi minorities who have suffered under majority rule in their respective countries. Each of their leaders has also long been involved in a guerrilla struggle.

Laurent Kabila, the self-declared ADFL leader, is a former Marxist who briefly joined forces with Che Guevara in the 1960s during his short-lived stint in Zaire. Although Kabila has fought the government of Mobutu for over 30 years, he has also long been a strongman in Zaire’s lucrative ivory, diamond, and gold trades. In the late 1980s, he frequently visited Uganda after Yoweri Musoveni and his guerrillas took power. One of Musoveni’s officers was Paul Kagame; he was later Musoveni’s intelligence chief and helped to secretly organize a Tutsi guerrilla force, the RPF, which invaded Rwanda in 1990. Today, Kagame is Rwanda’s defense minister and head of the RPA.

The ADFL’s recent surprise offensive in eastern Zaire bears an uncanny resemblance to the RPF invasion of Rwanda in 1990. Rebel forces in both cases managed to train, arm and infiltrate fighters almost without detection. Each demonstrated impressive tactical prowess, with operations executed by well-disciplined and highly motivated combatants. Although each force is responsible for specific cases of abuse against unarmed civilians, each made a significant effort to minimize civilian casualties. The question now is: “What are their respective objectives?” They share the goal of destroying the former Rwandan Army and Interahamwe. However, Kabila claims that his primary goal is to overthrow Mobutu and seize power in Zaire.

The ADFL was established on 18 October 1996 as a coalition of four opposition political parties: the Popular Revolutionary Party, led by Kabila; the National Council of Resistance for Democracy, led by Andre Kissasse-Ngandu; the Revolutionary Movement for the Liberation of Zaire, led by Mosasa Minitaga; and the People’s Democratic Alliance, led by Robert Bugera. None is well known. The ADFL also purports to include various Zairian ethnic groups besides the Banyamulenge, including the Kasai and Babembe ethnic groups, and to represent a number of geographic regions besides North and South Kivu, including Kasai Province. Still, the ADFL is far from marching on Kinshasa.

The most important elements of the ADFL remain the Banyamulenge, its crucial base of support remains the RPA. The RPA has little to gain by promoting a rebel takeover of all of Zaire, but it remains unclear to what extent Rwanda will support the ADFL as it tries to consolidate its hold on eastern Zaire. As long as the Interahamwe and the former Rwandan troops remain active, the ADFL affords Rwanda a useful buffer against Hutu rebel incursions. Such incursions, leaving behind murdered witnesses of the genocide, have escalated dramatically over the past year. Rwanda has responded by killing Hutu civilians whom they suspect of supporting them, as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has documented.

The ADFL’s arsenal is limited, so far, to small arms, including Kalashnikov and South African G-4 assault rifles, Uzi sub-machine guns, RPG-7 rocket launchers and 60 mm mortars. The RPA has much of the same as well as heavier weapons, including artillery and anti-aircraft guns, which it has used against ground positions.