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U.S.: Planners Weigh Military Campaigns For Best Way To Oust Iraqi Leader

  • Charles Recknagel

U.S. President George W. Bush has restated his intention to effect a regime change in Baghdad, telling the press yesterday that Washington will use "all tools at our disposal to do so." But most of the details of how the U.S. might act against Iraq, including whether it would use massive military force, remain unknown. RFE/RL looks at some of the alternatives.

Prague, 9 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- As Washington looks at options for removing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein from power, the public discussion in the United States today centers mostly on three strategic alternatives.

One is to employ covert action to prompt a palace coup leading to Saddam's assassination. Another is to use American airpower to support an attack on Saddam's troops by Iraqi opposition forces in hopes the opposition can seize control of Baghdad. The third is for the United States to undertake a massive military campaign to destroy Saddam's army and pave the way for a new popular government to emerge.

At the moment, much talk is focused on the third option, the use of massive U.S. military force. The talk has increased as the U.S. daily "The New York Times" published a classified military document describing how a combined air, land, and sea force might overthrow the Baghdad regime. The document suggests a force of some 250,000 U.S. soldiers backed by warplanes attacking thousands of targets across the country.

Following the document's publication late last week, U.S. officials have moved quickly to say it represents only one alternative and does not mean any attack on Iraq is imminent. However, U.S. President George W. Bush has also said that all options are open for dealing with Iraq -- a point he stressed again yesterday.

Asked by reporters if Washington intended to remove Saddam from power, he replied: "It's the stated policy of this government to have a regime change. And it hasn't changed. And we'll use all tools at our disposal to do so."

To learn more about how Washington regards the military options at its disposal, RFE/RL recently interviewed national-security expert Kenneth Pollack of the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations.

Pollack, who served as director for Gulf affairs on the staff of the National Security Council from 1999 to 2001, told RFE/RL Iraqi Service Deputy Director Kamran Al-Karadaghi that many in Washington now regard covert operations as an insufficient strategy to guarantee that Saddam will be removed from power. He said that Saddam's security apparatus is considered to be both efficient and loyal to him, convincing many U.S. military planners that any palace coup or assassination attempt would have to rely heavily on luck to succeed.

The analyst said that for similar reasons, military planners are also losing interest in a strategy of using limited U.S. force to support an Iraqi opposition effort to defeat Saddam's troops. That option might include the U.S. arming forces raised by the exiled Iraqi opposition leadership and providing them air cover for ground operations.

"Other people have suggested a combination of just air power, some support to the Iraqi opposition, and U.S. special forces, essentially the range of forces the U.S. brought to bear in Afghanistan. [But] Iraqi armed forces are much larger, they have demonstrated that they can withstand a major U.S. air campaign, and they have also demonstrated that they can manhandle Iraq's opposition forces under pretty much any circumstances," Pollack said.

Pollack added that: "In addition, it leaves Saddam free to fight back however he wants to. The Taliban really did not have any way of striking back at the United States or even its neighbors, but Saddam has a lot more options at his disposal. He has weapons of mass destruction. We know he has retained a small force of missiles and he can use them against U.S. forces and against other countries in the region."

Several commentators have written in the U.S. press that, with the survival of his regime at stake, Saddam could deploy hidden stocks of chemical and biological weapons that Washington believes he has developed. The Iraqi leader could also set fire to Iraqi oil wells -- as Iraqi troops did to Kuwaiti oil wells during the Gulf War -- in a form of environmental warfare designed to force Washington to halt operations.

Pollack said such concerns convince many in Washington that the best option for dealing with Saddam is a massive commitment of U.S. forces to assure that he is toppled from power with as little opportunity to strike back as possible. Such a strategy would entail both U.S. military and Iraqi civilian casualties but proponents argue that it offers the highest certainty of regime change in Baghdad. "No one really likes this idea. An invasion of Iraq will be large, it will be messy, people will die -- both American servicemen and innocent Iraqi civilians caught in the crossfire. But increasingly, people in Washington recognize that this is the only solution to the problem: It is the only way to be certain we will be able to get rid of Saddam Hussein's regime," Pollack said.

Pollack also said that proponents of using massive U.S. force believe that it is the fastest way to end fighting in Iraq once it begins, thus minimizing casualties. "And, ultimately, it is the course of action that is most likely to save the most American and innocent Iraqi lives, because the sooner the U.S. can go in using all its force, the harder it can hit Saddam, the faster it can get it over with, the sooner the killing will stop and the sooner we can begin to rebuild Iraq," Pollack said.

But while the idea of massive U.S. intervention appeals to planners who want to eliminate Saddam Hussein quickly, it remains to be determined who will provide Iraq's follow-up government. Pollack, who backs the use of overwhelming military force, said those questions should be decided in any U.S. operation's aftermath by the Iraqis themselves. He suggests one possibility would be a sustained international role in helping to stabilize Iraq and foster a democratic process that could produce a popularly supported government.

It also remains to be seen how an American military campaign against Baghdad would be received by Iraq's neighbors, some of whom fear that toppling Saddam could cause regional instability.

Turkey has repeatedly voiced concerns that Iraq's Kurds might seek to separate from Iraq, though Iraqi Kurdish leaders have said they respect the unity of the state. Turkey views any independence for Iraq's Kurds as a dangerous precedent for its own Kurdish minority, which remains restive following years of recently concluded guerrilla warfare between the former Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and Ankara.

At the same time, Iran is believed by Washington to be highly interested in assuring that any post-Saddam Iraq will be a weak regional power, possibly through Tehran's encouraging tensions between Iraq's ruling Sunni minority and its Shiite majority. The major armed Shiite resistance movement, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), is based in Iran.

These regional issues require that any post-Saddam government in Iraq be both popular and strong enough to assure the country's stability as well as its reconstruction. Those challenges are also now likely to become the priority concerns of U.S. planners as many opinion leaders in America appear ready to back strong military action.

"The New York Times" called for Washington to turn its attention to answering just such questions about the nature of a post-Saddam Iraq in an editorial yesterday.

The newspaper said that "at the moment, the White House seems to be moving toward a military offensive early next year." It added that Congressional leaders "have not, however, lived up to their responsibility for demanding a full public discourse about how to pursue this attractive goal with maximum chances of success and minimum risk to American forces, interests and alliances." The editorial concluded that, "what is urgently needed now is informed and serious debate."

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