After the Shelling Stops: We Need More Than Missiles To Oust Saddam

Who doesn’t want a new government in Baghdad? The Clinton administration’s sustained airstrikes against Iraq will cripple some of Saddam Hussein’s military capabilities, but few believe that unilateral bombing will, by itself, compel lasting change in Iraq. In fact, no real change is likely without a comprehensive political strategy that engages the full spectrum of Saddam Hussein’s domestic opponents and reaches out to other regional powers, including perhaps even Iran.

Last month, Congress pushed President Clinton to provide various Iraqi opposition groups with $97 million in aid, leaving it up to the administration to decide how to distribute it. Clinton responded with his first public assertion that removing the current government in Baghdad was the only long-term solution to the threat posed by Saddam Hussein’s regime.

Clinton’s words were quickly matched by British Prime Minister Tony Blair, whose government hosted a two-day meeting of exiled Iraqi opposition leaders in London.

But what one might call the Clinton-Blair plan has little chance of success. Pursuing Saddam Hussein’s ouster in earnest requires nothing less than a new geopolitical strategy, even though it would be based upon an old concept–the same one over which the Gulf War ostensibly was fought. In directing his Iraq policy, Clinton has up to now followed that of President Bush, who briefly sought to oust Saddam Hussein after the ground campaign in the Gulf War ended. But the Bush administration’s effort failed because it chose to seek out allies among the roughly 20 percent of the Iraqi population who are, like Saddam Hussein, Sunni Arabs, while ignoring the nearly 80 percent of the Iraqi people who are either Sunni Kurds or Shiite Arabs.

The United States and its allies fought the Gulf War over the principle of self-determination, but applied it in practice only to Kuwait. Now, to develop a serious effort toward toppling Saddam Hussein, the Clinton administration must apply it to Iraq. Instead of trying to inspire a coup against Saddam Hussein by Sunni Arabs relatively close to him–as the Bush administration tried and failed to do–the Clinton administration needs to nurture resistance among the country’s two other main ethnic groups, the minority Kurds and majority Shiites, whom Saddam Hussein has long excluded from power. So far, the administration has only lent a hand to the Kurds, and it just recently extended one to the Shiites. In announcing his decision to launch new air attacks against Iraq, Clinton said on Wednesday that the United States “will strengthen [its] engagement with the full range of Iraqi opposition forces.” But administration officials only met Iraq’s Shiite leaders, in Washington, for the first time four months ago. To have any chance of ousting Saddam Hussein, the administration must embrace them fully.

This is easier said than done. For decades, the United States and its allies have sought to contain Shiite expansionism as well as Kurdish nationalism in the region. Iraqi Kurds share an ethnic identity with Kurds in Turkey, Syria and Iran, while Iraqi Shiites share their religion with the Iranian people and government in Iran. America and its friends (not to mention some enemies) still worry that an insurrection in Iraq might lead to either the secession of Iraq’s northern region by Kurds, thereby encouraging Kurdish demands for greater autonomy in Turkey and elsewhere, or to a Shiite government in Baghdad allied with Tehran, thereby spreading the influence of radical Islamic forces in the region.

Bush admitted–but only after he left office–that this fear was why he abandoned the Kurdish and Shiite rebels shortly after the Gulf War, when everyone but Saddam Hussein expected the Iraqi leader to be deposed. Bush literally begged for a coup. Two days after the Gulf War ended, he called on Iraqis to “force Saddam Hussein, the dictator, to step aside,” and to bring Iraq “back into the family of peace-loving nations.” No one close to Saddam Hussein took up the cause.

But the same day that Bush issued his call, Shiite clerics in southern Iraq called for insurrection and, within days, rebels were holding ground in every city in southern Iraq. Kurdish guerrillas in northern Iraq followed suit en masse two weeks later. By then, rebel newspapers in the south were calling the uprising an intifada, equating their rebellion with the popular insurrection by Palestinians against Israel. In the north at the time, I saw Kurds holding hands and dancing and singing in the streets as they celebrated being clear of Saddam Hussein’s eye for the first time in decades. The days were so heady that some Kurdish couples named their newborns “Bush.”

Within weeks, many of these children were dying of exposure in the safe haven that the Bush administration established for the Kurds in northern Iraq. The intifada had been quickly snuffed out. Everyone under-estimated Saddam Hussein, who had ingeniously saved from harm during the war entire divisions of his army’s special forces along with the Republican Guards, as well as a surprising array of artillery, tanks, multiple-rocket launchers, light helicopters and heavier gunships. While downing his planes, the Gulf War cease-fire agreement had allowed Saddam Hussein to fly helicopters, purportedly to ferry his officers to negotiations and transport his wounded to hospitals. Instead, he used them to put down the rebellion with brutal force.

I was in Kirkuk, the first Kurdish city to fall. The Iraqi counter-offensive began after dawn on March 28. Incoming artillery and tank shells shook the ground, killing a young girl on her bicycle. “This is Saddam Hussein!” yelled one man who knew her. “Mr. Bush must know.” By noon, as Iraqi tanks were closing in on the town, Iraqi helicopters firing machine guns were joined by four or five helicopter gunships. Glistening like angry hornets, they unloaded seemingly endless volleys of exploding rockets. Kurds were dying all around. Several multiple-rocket launchers dropped a blanket of fire on fleeing guerrillas and civilians. The battle for Kirkuk was over in about seven hours. The Kurdish uprising was extinguished in four days.

To convince any Iraqis to again risk their lives will require global leadership and conviction from President Clinton, and a sustained commitment from the American people. Wishing for a new government in Baghdad is not enough. Clinton will have to take a step Bush never made and commit the U.S. military to backing up Iraqi opposition forces in the field. The route toward a wider American military role may have been eased by the bombing attacks over the past few days on Saddam Hussein’s special forces and intelligence services. Options include imposing a “no-fly” zone across all of Iraq and working to find front-line states willing to provide sanctuaries for various rebel forces. And, yes, the options would include arming the rebel forces sufficiently. U.S. air power could check Saddam Hussein’s aircraft and armor, while U.S. ground forces–conceivably with the help of forces from Britain and other allies–could help carve out and protect sanctuaries that could be stocked with food and medicine for general distribution by opposition groups.

The premise behind such a plan already exists, namely that the Iraqi dictator is an intolerable menace who continues to threaten his own people and regional stability. But the opposition is weak, in some cases bitterly divided, and largely inactive inside Iraq. Far more resistance will be required to successfully execute the plan. In the mid-1990s, the CIA backed a coalition of exile groups called the Iraqi National Congress in northern Iraq. The joint 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 Hussein to join forces with him against Iraq’s other main Kurdish leader, Jalal Talabani. Saddam Hussein’s forces moved in on the CIA-baked operation, capturing and killing many. By then, the CIA was also backing the Iraqi National Accord, a group led by former officials of Saddam Hussein’s regime who hope to inspire a coup via anti-regime radio broadcasts from Amman, Jordan.

Independent groups, however, have launched attacks against the regime inside Iraq. In December 1996, a group identifying itself as Al-Nahdad, or the Awakening, ambushed Saddam Hussein’s eldest son, Uday, in Baghdad. The attack left Uday, who was notorious for torturing suspected dissidents, badly crippled. Just last month, 60 miles south of Baghdad in Karbala, unidentified assailants hurled two hand grenades at Izzat Ibrahim, Saddam Hussein’s second-in-command. While he escaped unharmed, it was the first known anti-government attack in southern Iraq since the intifada. The most important Shiite opposition group is the Supreme Assembly of the Islamic Revolution of Iraq, which is represented within the London-based Iraqi National Congress even though the Supreme Assembly’s leaders have long been based in Tehran. To resurrect a viable opposition, the United States has no choice now but to somehow work with Iran. For 19 years, Americans have equated Iran’s Shiite-led government (nine out of 10 Iranians are Shiite) with radical Islamic fundamentalism. But the biggest sponsors of Islamic terrorism today are Sudan and Afghanistan. Both countries have Sunni Islamic regimes that have harbored Osama bin Laden, a Sunni, whom the United States has accused of being the mastermind behind last summer’s bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa.

A real policy to oust Saddam Hussein would mark a strategic break with past U.S. efforts to contain Iran, which last year finally began showing signs of change. In Tehran moderate leaders have been challenging radical ones for the first time since the 1979 revolution. The position of those Iranians advocating change remains precarious and may still slip without warning. But one thing is certain. New and old Iranian leaders alike remember that Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons, including mustard gas, at least three times against Iran in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq war.

The United States must choose its Iraqi allies more wisely as well. One reason the Bush administration failed during the post-Gulf War uprising was that it placed too great a stake in a group of Sunni Iraqi exiles, many of whom are ex-monarchists, based in London. Though they played no role in the rebellion, by the time it was crushed they were already planning to proclaim themselves representatives of a government-in-exile based in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Now even the smallest of Iraqi opposition groups expect to receive millions in U.S. aid. The United States stands to benefit more if it backs groups proportionately, based upon their representativeness and military potential inside Iraq.

Many fear that CIA and other U.S. support for the Iraqi opposition now might come back to haunt the United States much like the CIA’s support for the anti-Soviet resistance in Afghanistan in the 1980s contributed to that country’s recent takeover by the ultra-fundamentalist Taliban movement. Of course, there would be no guarantee that whoever replaces Saddam Hussein would be to anyone’s particular liking. But wouldn’t the world be better off, in any case, without him in power?

Any effort toward removing Saddam Hussein would also be risky and unpredictable, and it would threaten to upset America’s regional alliances. Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran, to name just three front-line states, would all have legitimate concerns. Nonetheless, Saddam Hussein’s ouster would be welcomed by many Arabs as well as Iranians.

Some argue, too, that any U.S. effort to overthrow a sovereign government is an intrinsically imperialist act. But one should keep in mind that, inside Iraq, the 1991 uprising united groups as diverse as the Supreme Assembly and the Communist Party. U.S. support for a truly representative coalition now would be more consistent with the principles of democracy and self-determination than any previous policy. The effort would be further legitimized if Saddam Hussein were finally indicted as a war criminal over, among other things, his 1988 gassing of Iraqi Kurds, as Human Rights Watch has documented based on Iraqi documents captured in the Gulf War.

Saddam Hussein knows better than anyone that he is already surrounded by hostile groups and states. To encourage an effective armed rebellion, the Clinton administration must develop a sustained, comprehensive plan–and commit to it. The diplomacy required would be challenging and complex, as potential participants and allies alike were recruited and reassured. This would demand consistent, high-level attention, probably for years. But if enough people inside Iraq thought that enough people outside Iraq were serious about them, then maybe some people, or many, might act. The last time they tasted hope, Iraqis rose up en masse. Unlike us, they suffer Saddam Hussein daily, and he no doubt has earned more enemies than friends.