Toppling Saddam: Clinton Wants a New Government in Baghdad, but He and the Iraqi Opposition Are Unlikely to Be Up to the Task

WASHINGTON — President Clinton is committed to backing Iraqi opposition forces toward eventually forming a new government in Baghdad, say Clinton administration officials. But they acknowledge that risky strategy could take years to bear fruit.

“You can’t work this precipitously,” says one White House official. “What we don’t want is an ill-conceived, poorly prepared effort that will only cost innocent people their lives.” Instead, he adds, the administration’s long-term objective is “to build the opposition into a viable alternative to the current regime.”

President Clinton on Sunday modified his own Iraq policy and moved closer to a Republican-led plan. Late last week, critics like Sens. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., and Sam Brownback, R-Kan., along with former Bush administration officials like Paul Wolfowitz, had urged the Clinton administration to adopt a long-run strategy toward ousting Saddam Hussein. On Sunday Clinton said that while the United States will continue its policy of containing Saddam by working to eliminate his weapons of mass destruction, “over the long-term the best way to address that threat is through a government in Baghdad — a new government — that is committed to represent and respect its people, not repress them; that is committed to peace in the region.”

The last time any U.S. president talked like that was shortly after the Gulf War, when President George Bush called upon Iraqis to “force Saddam Hussein, the dictator, to step aside” and bring Iraq “back into the family of peace-loving nations.” Though Bush’s call quickly inspired mass insurrection in northern as well as in southern Iraq, the Bush administration merely stood by as Saddam crushed the insurrectionists with superior firepower that he had ingeniously saved from harm during the Gulf War.

“They were slaughtered,” says Wolfowitz, now the dean of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, who, during the Bush administration, was a senior Pentagon planner. “I got chewed out by [Gen. Colin] Powell for fighting the decision [not to back them] even after it had been made,” he adds. “It was wrong morally and we’re paying for it now.”

Clinton administration officials say they have no intention of repeating past mistakes. Instead, their policy is designed “so the next time this set of circumstances present themselves the results will be different,” says the White House official.

For nearly six years, the Clinton administration followed Bush’s lead of not getting too close to the Iraqi opposition. Last February, during the last dramatic showdown with Saddam, Clinton snubbed Ahmed Chalabi, leader of the Iraqi National Congress, when he came to Washington to solicit the administration’s backing on behalf of a loose coalition of opposition groups that make the INC.

Critics both within and outside the administration have long argued that the Iraqi opposition is too spent a force to play any effective role. In March, Richard N. Haass, a former Bush administration national security advisor, told the Senate Subcommittee on Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs that the Iraqi opposition was “weak and divided.” He added: “Building a strong, united opposition is an uncertain proposition that at a minimum would take years.”

But that didn’t stop the Republican-led Congress from authorizing Clinton to provide the Iraqi opposition with $97 million in U.S. assistance. Though the president signed the bill two weeks ago, he did not encourage the legislation. “The administration has opposed any serious effort to help the Iraqi opposition in recent years,” says Zalmay Khalizad, a Rand Corporation analyst who, during the Bush administration, was also a Defense Department planner. “The question now is, does he have a plan, a strategy, a will for moving forward?”

The Clinton administration began to rethink its Iraq policy back in February, U.S. officials say, when it became clear that Saddam’s constant thwarting of the U.N. inspection team might render it an ineffective way to curb his ability to produce weapons of mass destruction. “If it hasn’t worked for eight to 10 months,” says another White House official, “then why would it work now?” So officials at the National Security Council and the State Department began reconsidering their options. “But you only have so many tools in your toolbox,” says a State Department official.

The administration’s three main tools have been U.N. inspections to monitor Saddam’s ability to make weapons of mass destruction, unilateral bombing to enforce his compliance with the U.N. inspection team and multilateral economic and trade sanctions to maintain pressure on Saddam and his regime. Newsweek reported last week that in the face of Saddam’s constant thwarting this year of the U.N. inspections, the administration had decided that sanctions, backed up by bombing, would be the best way to contain Saddam in the long term.

“We were not getting anything with the inspections,” explains Andrew C. Winner, a former State Department political/military planner who is now with the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis. “So sanctions were seen as the best lever.”

Until Sunday, there was little indication that the administration was even considering another tool: the option of seriously backing the Iraqi opposition to eventually replace Saddam in power. Now, however, Clinton has flagged that goal as a stated objective of U.S. policy, though critics still complain that he fails to move toward it. “I see [Clinton’s statement] as inching in the right direction,” says ex-Bush planner Wolfowitz. “But what I think is needed is a very clear statement that we are committed to [Saddam’s] removal.”

Instead, the Clinton administration has said exactly the opposite. After Clinton stepped off the White House podium on Sunday, National Security Advisor Sandy Berger and Secretary of Defense William Cohen fielded questions from the press. In response to one journalist’s query about whether the president’s unusually strong language suggested that he was seeking to oust Saddam, Cohen said: “He was not calling for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. What he was saying is that we are prepared and will work with opposition forces or groups to try and bring about, at some future time, a more democratic type of regime.”

Clinton administration officials deny that there is any inconsistency between longing for a new Iraqi government in the future and stopping short of calling for Saddam’s overthrow now. “We are intensifying our efforts” in the support of the opposition, says the White House official. “There will be an effort to work with them more in earnest,” he adds, choosing language that seems like an admission of the administration’s failure to earnestly support the opposition before. Earlier this year, many State Department diplomats and other U.S. officials had privately dismissed the idea of backing the Iraqi opposition because, they said, it was ineffective. This week a few of the same officials who were reached for comment declined to discuss the matter. Others failed to return a reporter’s calls.

Most of America’s allies have yet to formally respond to the president’s new words of encouragement for the Iraqi opposition. But during the standoff with Saddam last February, Saudi Arabia refused to allow American bombers to launch from its soil, fearing that the attacks might be perceived as taking a heavier toll on Iraq’s civilians than its leaders. Now Arab diplomats say they are cautious about the administration’s plan to back the Iraqi opposition.

Many of the front-line states around Iraq, like Saudi Arabia and Turkey, have long opposed any plan for Iraq that could potentially divide the country. U.S. officials have also long feared the same result. Though about one in five Iraqis are Sunni Arabs like Saddam Hussein, three out of five Iraqis are Shi’a Arabs who share their religion with the vast majority of Persian people along with the government in neighboring Iran. Nearly one more out of five Iraqis are Sunni Kurds who, to some degree, share an ethnic identity with Kurds in Turkey, Syria and Iran. Says one Arab diplomat, “We [have long] opposed any plan that could lead to the break-up of Iraq.”

The Clinton administration now seeks to bring America’s regional allies on board with the opposition. “We know we don’t have it yet,” says the White House official. “But we want to work with a broad range of [Iraqi] groups and build a base of support for them with countries in the region.” But first the administration must convince its Arab allies, along with others, that the Iraqi opposition could be resurrected into a viable force. “After years of repression by Saddam Hussein, there is no recognizable Iraqi opposition out there yet,” says the Arab official.

There was once. Back after the Gulf War, on March 1, 1991, the very day that Bush made his call for Iraqis to overthrow Saddam, Shi’a clerics in southern Iraq called for insurrection, and within days, rebel forces had taken the Iraqi town of Basra near the Saudi border, while fighting had broken out as well in nearly every city in southern Iraq. On March 14, Kurdish guerrillas in northern Iraq followed suit by launching their own offensive. In less than a week, they liberated every town with a Kurdish-speaking population in northern Iraq. Journalists in northern Iraq at the time interviewed Iraqi army prisoners-of-war who expressed only contempt for Saddam, and they saw Kurds holding hands and singing and dancing in the streets.

This was the moment that the Bush administration chose to ignore. “We should have at least taken out [Saddam’s] gunships,” says Wolfowitz, adding that without the protection of helicopters his tanks would have found it riskier to advance. Instead, Bush officials did nothing as first Shi’a rebels in the south and then Kurdish guerrillas in the north were decimated. In As-Samawah in southern Iraq, fleeing witnesses reported that Iraqi troops shot Shi’a men on sight as they advanced behind a shield of captured Shia women. Outside Kirkuk in northern Iraq, journalists saw Iraqi forces drop a blanket of fire on fleeing guerrillas and civilians. Tanks only overran Kirkuk after multiple rocket launchers had softened the ground and rocket-firing gunships, along with smaller choppers, had destroyed most fixed targets.

There has been only weak and sporadic armed opposition to Saddam and his regime since. Most of it has been concentrated in northern Iraq, where the CIA, in the mid-’90s, provided at least $15 million in covert aid to the Iraqi National Congress. The INC’s main goal was to unite two feuding Kurdish factions that have long differed over clan-based identification as well as ideology. But the effort collapsed in August 1996, when one of the Kurdish leaders, Massoud Barzani, invited Saddam to join forces with him against Iraq’s other main Kurdish leader, Jalal Talabini. Saddam’s forces moved in to destroy the CIA-backed operation, reportedly killing many detainees after capture.

Baghdad is the only other place where any significant military action against the Iraqi regime has occurred since the spring of 1991. In December 1996, a group identifying itself as Al-Nahdad, or the Awakening, attacked Saddam’s eldest son, Uday, who was notorious for torturing suspected dissidents, leaving him a paraplegic. Meanwhile, in southern Iraq, though some fighting has occurred among its remote marshlands, no known urban confrontations have taken place since the 1991 revolt, known throughout Iraq as the intifada.

The impact of its demise — throughout Iraq and the region — is something that the Clinton administration now seeks to overcome. To be successful, says Wolfowitz, Clinton “would have to finish George Bush’s war.” But he and other observers doubt whether Clinton is any more committed to the task. “We would have to show people that we were serious about this, and reassure them,” says Winner of the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis. “And that is a tall order.”

Frank Smyth, a freelance journalist who has also served as an investigative consultant for Human Rights Watch as well as Amnesty International, is a contributor to Crimes of War: What the Public Should Know, edited by Roy Gutman and David Rieff.