Taking Out Saddam
Clinton is about to bet $97 million on Iraq's opposition. The odds aren't good
By Johanna Mcgeary
Ahmed Chalabi, a 54-year-old Iraqi businessman, has lived in exile for 26 years, but he keeps dreaming the same dream: as leader of the opposition to Saddam Hussein, he will persuade Washington to designate large swaths of Iraq as no-fly/no- drive zones, where U.S. air power will shelter a nascent anti-Saddam revolution. Inside these enclaves, Chalabi will build a guerrilla force financed by "liberated" Iraqi oil. One day, under the protection of U.S. warplanes, 10,000 fighters will march on Baghdad, slicing away pieces of Saddam's territory as their offensives persuade demoralized Iraqi army units to desert. When civilians witness the burgeoning success of the insurgents, the brittle walls surrounding the dictator's regime will collapse amid a general uprising, and Saddam will be overthrown.
General Anthony Zinni, the four-star who leads the U.S. military in the Persian Gulf, spent months among dissidents in northern Iraq after the 1991 war, and is paid to judge such things. He has a recurrent nightmare: What if the U.S. fell in with schemes like Chalabi's? Privately he thinks they're "harebrained," and he doesn't warm to such notions in public either. "I've heard of schemes where people are saying, 'Create an enclave, guarantee air support,'" he sighs. "Those are the kinds of things we have to be very careful of." Yes, President Clinton signed the Iraq Liberation Act in October, signaling Washington's desire to help depose Saddam, but few in the State or Defense departments took it seriously.
Until last Sunday. Then the President shocked many veteran Iraq watchers by publicly embracing the bill and promising to "do what we can" to bring down Iraq's perpetually menacing dictator. As Clinton told the world that he had aborted the launch of hundreds of Tomahawk cruise missiles, his Iraq policy seemed to wear a stern new look. Was this goodbye containment, hello replacement? Not exactly. Clinton made it clear the reason for aborting military action last week was to preserve unfettered inspection of Iraq's arsenal, the one semi-working mechanism for keeping Saddam's nasty ambitions in check. So he's trying containment plus replacement: remove Saddam's weapons of mass destruction and remove Saddam. If one doesn't work, maybe the other will.
Don't bet on it. Even as an elated Chalabi declared, "We can do it!," much of Washington scoffed. "Nobody around here is naive," acknowledged a Clinton aide involved in the effort. "There's no easy way either to directly oust him or to create an opposition group that over time can do it." In fact, say military analysts, the liberation law is a fine symbol to show that the U.S. stands with the people of Iraq against Saddam, but it is hardly a blueprint for his demise.
If militarily dubious, the new tack played well politically. It pacified congressional critics who have clamored for Saddam's removal, and papered over any perception left by the bombing U-turn that the dictator was getting off scot-free. But a sizable portion of the capital took Clinton's pledge as political snake oil, a shift designed to make a show of doing something rather than actually doing anything.
Taking out Saddam has long been a dream goal in Washington, but the Administration has come up short in figuring out how to reach it. Republicans grew fed up with Clinton's halfhearted, clandestine efforts, and key Demo-crats demanded direct talk about encouraging democratic change, while the White House and the CIA, spooked by past failures, stalled over new ideas. Around June, the White House finally delivered a top-secret covert-action memo to Congress, but it smelled like a rehash of tired, old schemes, and the Senate Intelligence Committee bounced it. Instead, it backed the $97 million Iraq Liberation Act, an ambitious bill designed to bring support for anti-Saddam dissidents out of the closet and funnel money and guns to them.
Clinton signed the measure on Oct. 31, the day Saddam booted out U.N. inspectors, but aides say the President had no intention of passing one rifle to the hodgepodge of weak Iraqi opposition groups. (The measure leaves Clinton full discretion on whether and how to spend the money.) The Pentagon and the CIA still consider the legislation foolhardy in trying to arm an opposition "with no there there."
More than 70 anti-Saddam grouplets sit around plotting in coffee shops from London to Amman. They cover every shade of opinion and ethnic coloration, including Islamists with Shi'ite and Sunni subdivisions, Kurd separatists, Arab nationalists, communists and liberal democrats. Their only common goal is to depose Saddam, but after that come conflicting agendas. The most robust of the groups, at least in p.r. terms, is Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress. The I.N.C. once united nearly two-dozen factions and earned support from Washington, but it has fallen on hard times. Internal feuds and well-publicized failures have melted its credibility. Another group, the Amman-based Iraqi National Accord, tries to cultivate dissent inside the Iraqi army in hopes of the putsch that U.S. intelligence calls "the silver bullet." The I.N.A. was a CIA favorite--until Saddam penetrated the group in 1996 and quickly executed 100 Baghdad-based dissidents, a brutal reminder of his famously bloody ruthlessness.
Chalabi--who hopes to land some of the Liberation Act's $97 million--insists the difficulties would vanish with a liberal application of cash and U.S. muscle. He wants guns and training now and tactical air support when his revolt begins. But few in Washington are willing to go along for the ride. Says Kenneth Pollack, a former CIA analyst: "Their plan is militarily ludicrous."
Despite the naysaying, Clinton is pushing ahead. Doling out guns won't happen soon, if ever. But the President has ordered the State Department to devise a plan for uniting the disparate dissidents into a credible political force, "raising their profile" under the guidance of a senior official. (Before Sunday, no one was willing to take the assignment.) In coming months, the CIA will return to the drawing board to dream up another covert-action plan involving clandestine funds, recruitment among disgruntled military officers and stepped-up propaganda. But White House officials concede that "there's no magic pill there. You just don't run in and throw some secret things at Saddam."
The problems with this replacement approach put the pressure back on U.N. efforts to contain Saddam's weapons of mass destruction. Washington is still betting that the highly trained inspection teams that trooped back to Baghdad last week can bridle Saddam's more dangerous ambitions. But privately, the hope is starting to wilt. U.S. officials are concerned that the eight-year-old U.N. regime may have done almost all it can to uncover existing stockpiles. UNSCOM inspectors have already rid Iraq of many of its missiles, launchers and tons of chemical munitions and production equipment. They are now searching mainly for biological weapons--small, easily hidden stores of anthrax, botulinum and aflatoxin, along with growth medium to produce new supplies. U.S. inspectors have privately concluded that Saddam has at least one biological facility that may be secreted in a room no bigger than 25 sq. ft.
Iraq has mastered the art of the shell game, whisking its secret stores from nook to nook ahead of the inspectors. Most difficult of all to get hold of are the logbooks that compare prewar acquisitions with what is accounted for now; and the plans and designs, on paper or computer discs or simply locked in scientists' heads, that would enable Saddam to reconstitute his warheads and missiles if inspections ever stopped. Last week Saddam refused to give inspectors access to some key papers, once again raising prospects for confrontation. "We knew we'd get back to square one with Sadam," said a Pentagon official. "We just didn't think it would happen so quickly." The attack on Iraq planned for two weeks ago could be rescheduled with 12 hours notice.
Clinton's latest moves at least have the virtue of making the U.S. appear busy: pressing aggressive inspections, organizing a political opposition, plotting covert action, "preparing the battlefield" for insurrection. But the results are all too likely to prove insignificant when it turns out you can't cheaply subcontract a coup or ever track down 100% of Saddam's terror arsenal.
--Reported by William Dowell/U.N., Scott MacLeod/Amman and Mark Thompson and Douglas Waller/Washington
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Cover Date: November 30, 1998