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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

The Last, Worst Hope: How an Invasion Might Go

By Mark Thompson

TIME magazine

Doctors combatting malignant tumors often resort to radical surgery to cut out the diseased tissue. So why can't the U.S. military perform a total Saddamectomy? The idea is bubbling anew in Congress and among Bush Administration advisers who passed up the chance to remove the Iraqi dictator in 1991, when U.S. troops were in his neighborhood. But it's not a serious topic in the Pentagon tank, the top-secret meeting room in which the Joint Chiefs of Staff plot strategy. In fact, Marine General Anthony Zinni, who as chief of the U.S. Central Command would oversee any U.S.-led attack on Iraq, thinks it's a dubious scheme. "Saddam contained," he says, "is far better than an Iraq that implodes or explodes and ends up like an Afghanistan or a Somalia."

Zinni is not the first four-star to be reluctant about taking down Saddam. The CIA believes that trying to kill the Baghdad bully from afar with missiles is nearly impossible. (The Pentagon tried, and missed, with 40 air attacks during the Gulf War.)

A more ambitious scheme--such as sending the U.S. Army on a search-and-destroy-Saddam mission--is politically and militarily foolish. Gulf War Army veteran John Hillen, a military strategist with the Council on Foreign Relations, believes such a campaign would be feasible only if Saddam did something really stupid, such as another lunge into Kuwait or a spectacular act of terrorism against U.S. citizens.

A get-Saddam operation would require help, especially the right to set up military bases, from Iraq's neighbors, including Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Like Gulf War I, Gulf War II would begin with a strategic air campaign that would target all the tools that help Saddam keep his grip on power--and Saddam as well. If he survived the aerial onslaught, the land campaign would try to pin him and his loyalists down in greater Baghdad. As the U.S. Army tightened its noose around Saddam, he'd be tempted to unleash whatever nuclear, chemical and biological weapons he has squirreled away. While the war raged, Iraqi skies also would be filled with U.S. broadcasts urging Iraqis to abandon Saddam and embrace a new national leader.

Hillen estimates that it would take as many as 340,000 U.S. troops six months to assemble and then invade and take over Iraq. They'd be there for as long as five years as a post-Saddam government got on its feet. Final cost: more than $50 billion and at least 1,000 dead Americans. And one more thing: while this huge undertaking might remove Saddam from power, there's no guarantee that he wouldn't survive and become a vengeful and fugitive Muslim hero.

But such dire numbers don't stop armchair generals from fantasizing. Prying Saddam out of Baghdad with Iraqi rebels is a doomed enterprise, they believe. "If you were to have a credible program for the removal of Saddam Hussein, it's going to involve U.S. ground troops," says Senator Richard Lugar, an influential member of the Foreign Relations Committee. And if Saddam won't give up power? "I suspect then," Lugar says, "that he will have to be killed." The Indiana Republican concedes he's using "a novelist's imagination" to chart Saddam's fate. Pentagon officials agree that such wishful thinking should be filed under fiction.

--By Mark Thompson. With reporting by Douglas Waller/Washington


Cover Date: November 30, 1998

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