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Iraq: Analysts Weigh U.S. Options, Risks In Toppling Saddam Hussein

  • Charles Recknagel

As U.S. media report that Washington is increasingly considering a military solution to its problems with Iraq, many analysts are examining the possible courses of American action and their consequences for the region. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel looks at some of the challenges Washington would face both in toppling Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and dealing with the aftermath.

Prague, 14 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- No one in Washington is ready to state officially that the U.S. administration is preparing to topple Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

But American newspapers this week carried multiple reports from anonymous members of the government suggesting just that. At the same time, U.S. President George W. Bush -- while refusing to say what he is planning for Iraq -- has continued to signal that he reserves the right to carry out pre-emptive strikes against nations that might constitute a terrorist threat against America.

As speculation mounts that the U.S. may try to overthrow Saddam's regime -- and at this point, it remains only speculation -- political analysts in Washington and elsewhere are looking closely at the options available and their consequences.

Many observers say that if Washington has decided to attack Saddam, it is likely to prepare two strategies for doing so and will at some point have to choose between them.

One is a military campaign, probably relying heavily on airpower and potential defections within the Iraqi military. The "Los Angeles Times" recently quoted senior U.S. officials as saying privately that the administration is exploring the possibility of a new anti-Saddam opposition inside and outside the country. The paper reported that "consensus is growing on broadening the makeup of the U.S.-funded Iraqi National Congress to make it more representative of all the forces in Iraq."

A second option would be to attempt to foster a political coup within Baghdad's ruling circle and, particularly, among disaffected military officers. A recent commentary by the Stratfor organization in Austin, Texas, said this strategy would base its hopes on the fact that -- while the military has been the prime recipient of Baghdad's spending -- a number of high-ranking officers have defected in the past decade.

Some analysts say the first approach -- a military campaign -- might be the easiest for Washington to organize. But it also could pose the greatest challenges for maintaining regional stability.

Ted Galen Carpenter, a U.S. foreign policy expert at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C., sees the advantages and disadvantages of a military campaign this way: "There is no question that the United States can defeat Saddam Hussein's forces and can militarily occupy Iraq if it chooses to do that. It is more questionable whether Saddam Hussein's domestic opponents, especially those groups represented by the Iraqi National Congress, could overthrow Saddam with just minimal help from the United States. I expect that, unlike the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, the Iraqi National Congress would need a great deal of U.S. assistance to get rid of Saddam."

He continues: "And once we did oust Saddam, whether the United States liked it or not, we would be responsible for Iraq's future, including determining whether to keep the country united, or to try to do that, or to give the go-ahead to Kurdish and Shiia separatists who want to form their own states and, in effect, see Iraq fragment into three successor states. That is just one of many, many problems the United States would face as Iraq's postwar guardian, if you will."

Because of such challenges, some analysts say Washington could regard a so-called palace coup as a better way to deal with Saddam.

Amir Taheri is the editor of the Paris-based journal "Politique Internationale" and has long followed the Iraqi crisis. He recently visited Washington to talk with U.S. officials and says many in Washington see a change within the regime in Baghdad as the most manageable long-term solution.

Speaking recently with Radio Free Iraq correspondent Sami Shoresh, Taheri says: "There are people within the Iraqi regime, the Iraq establishment -- maybe not in the Revolutionary Command Council, but at other levels of the Iraqi establishment -- who realize that this policy of enmity with the United States is bad for Iraq. And they would welcome some way out of the present impasse so that Iraq could establish a dialogue with the United States. But the problem is that such a dialogue would have to exclude the person of Saddam Hussein."

He continues: "The example of Serbia comes to mind. You know, virtually the whole of the Serbian ruling establishment is still in place; only Milosevic and a few of his associates have been eliminated. But Serbia has good relations with the West and the United States. In Iraq, too, my impression is that the Americans would prefer some evolution or a coup or something from within the ruling establishment, [whereby] a new group from within the present rulers' set-up comes forward, eliminates Saddam Hussein, and puts Iraq on a new path."

But analysts also warn that fostering a coup within the regime might not necessarily lead to the kind of new government Washington wants. That is, one which is stable, democratic and friendly.

George Joffe, a regional expert at the Center for International Studies at Cambridge University in England, says palace coups can be highly unpredictable in their results: "As for bribing someone in the household to carry out an assassination, so what? That doesn't necessarily replace the regime. You wouldn't necessarily be able to say, well, someone who would be an acceptable head of state with the ability to manage it would come out on top from such a process."

As Washington now is reported to be seriously weighing a more muscular policy toward Baghdad, many countries neighboring Iraq have expressed concern that their security interests also need to be taken into consideration.

Turkey has warned against U.S. military action for fear it could lead to a breakup of Iraq and the creation of an independent Kurdish state in the north. Ankara, which has fought for decades against Turkish-Kurd guerrillas, fears any independent Kurdish state in the region would increase separatist sentiment among its own Kurdish minority.

Saudi Arabia, which took part in the 1991 Gulf War that stopped short of toppling Saddam, also has reservations about any new U.S. invasion of Iraq. One fear during the Gulf War was that Iraq's Shiite majority might create a breakaway state in the south if the regime collapsed, leading to greater Iranian influence in the region.

Tehran backs the largest Shiite-based opposition movement in Iraq and would welcome any outcome that weakens Iraq as its rival superpower in the Gulf. However, any increased Iranian influence would threaten Saudi Arabia and the other Persian Gulf states, which have long sought to balance Baghdad and Tehran against each other to ward off menaces from either.

Many analysts say that -- in the face of these concerns -- Washington's first move in adopting any new strategy toward Iraq will have to be a sustained diplomatic campaign to convince its allies that removing Saddam is necessary and can be done with a manageable level of risk.

Speaking yesterday, Bush said he would consult widely with other countries before taking any action against Iraq. He told reporters that he "looked forward to working with the world" to bring pressure against threatening states that are developing weapons of mass destruction.

But the U.S. president also suggested again that America would act alone against Saddam if he fails to abandon efforts to develop nuclear, biological and chemical weapons that might pass into the hands of terrorists.

Bush said: "Saddam Hussein needs to understand that I'm serious about defending our country."

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