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Iraq: A Post-Saddam Regime -- Overthrowing Leadership Brings Risk Of Upheaval (Part 1)

  • Charles Recknagel

U.S. President George W. Bush's repeated statements that he wants a "regime change" in Baghdad are fueling a lively debate in Washington about the consequences of toppling Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. In the first of a two-part series, RFE/RL looks at how regional experts assess the risk that Iraq might break apart as a result of any U.S. military action.

Prague, 13 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- As debate over possible U.S. military action against Iraq grows, one of the most discussed issues is whether toppling the regime of Saddam Hussein might lead to the breakup of Iraq.

"The New York Times" recently wrote in an editorial that "military victory in Iraq would leave Washington temporarily responsible for guiding the future of a major Arab oil-producing country in the heart of the Middle East. The first challenge would be preventing Iraq's dissolution."

The question of whether Iraq would break apart addresses the fact that there are strong ethnic-based tensions in the country and that, currently, all dissent is suppressed by a dictatorship that rules by force. No one knows what would happen if the power structures that Saddam has created were to crumble under a U.S. attack, freeing many groups to pursue their own ends for the first time since Saddam's ruling Ba'th party seized power in 1968.

Ted Galen Carpenter, a U.S. foreign policy expert at the Washington D.C.-based Cato Institute, says modern Iraq has been an artificial and fragile entity since it was created under a British mandate from the remains of the Ottoman Empire. He says the three largest component populations -- Sunni Arabs, Shiite Arabs, and Kurds -- do not have a strong sense of unity. The Kurds have a long history of revolt against Baghdad, while the majority Shiite have felt highly oppressed by Saddam's Sunni Muslim-based regime.

Carpenter says assurances from Kurdish leaders that they want to remain part of a unified Iraq could change if any post-Saddam government in Baghdad were weak.

"The Kurds have given assurances that they don't really want an independent state, that they are happy with extensive autonomy within a united Iraq. But we have seen other movements, including the Albanians in Kosovo, ask initially for autonomy [and then] that quickly escalates to a demand for independence."

Carpenter also says that if the Kurds did seek to break away, it could bring the risk of a regional war. Both Turkey and Iran oppose the creation of a Kurdish state for fear that it would fan breakaway sentiment among their own Kurdish minorities. Some analysts do not rule out the possibility that Turkey and Iran could seize Iraqi-Kurdish territory to destroy any independent state as soon as it was proclaimed.

Other analysts disagree with the idea that Iraq would fracture if Saddam is ousted. They say Iraqis have a strong sense of nationhood and a strong fear of their neighboring states and that these factors would keep the country together.

Rend Rahim Francke is director of the pro-democracy Iraq Foundation in Washington, D.C. She says Iraq's Shiite majority revolted against the regime in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War, but that they see themselves very much as Iraqis. "The Iraqi Shia have always said to me, for example, when I have talked to them, that they see themselves as Iraqis first and everything else after. And when you think of Baghdad, Baghdad for the last 20 or 30 years has had a majority Shia population. So to say that the Shia are going to secede, the question is, secede from what?

A key question that could help decide whether Iraq breaks apart is whether Iraq's army swings its weight behind a new leadership, assuring that revolts are suppressed and that neighboring countries are discouraged from interfering. One of the countries thought likely to seek influence in southern Iraq is Iran, which hosts the main armed Iraqi Shiite opposition movement.

Some analysts say that Saddam's best-equipped army units, which are most responsible for keeping order today, may remain loyal to their leader. These units are the Republican Guard and the Special Republican Guard.

Regional experts Michael O'Hanlon and Philip Gordon of the Brookings Institution wrote recently that "while many of Iraq's 425,000 active-duty troops are poorly trained and their loyalty to [Saddam] is questionable, his top 100,000 troops, especially the Republican Guard and the Special Republican Guard, are unlikely to crack quickly."

The analysts at the Washington, D.C.-based think tank say it would "probably require the deployment of a large American invasion force on Iraq's border" to generate any hope the elite forces would desert Saddam or that a coup could arise from within their ranks. Some observers suggest that a coup from within the regime would be the easiest way to topple Saddam while also preserving order.

O'Hanlon and Gordon also say that if the elite forces do not desert Saddam, the U.S. would be required to destroy them. That is something the writers are confident the U.S. military can do, but they warn that stability in the country would be far from guaranteed afterward.

Other observers regard the idea of destroying Saddam's elite forces as the best way to free officers within the regular army to seize power. They say these officers are not as closely tied to the Ba'th regime as are the elite forces, and might be more disposed to the subsequent installation of a civilian government.

Kamran Al-Karadaghi, the deputy director of RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq, says the removal of the elite forces would likely result in a rapid rearrangement of alliances away from Saddam among Iraq's Sunni Arab tribes and their extensions within the army. "The current political system is really built on an alliance of different tribes, especially within the center of Iraq -- Sunni Arab tribes -- and this is very important because their extensions are in the army [and] the Republican Guard. So when action is seen as very serious against the regime, then everybody will change their position, and it is a matter of survival. They will understand [that] if they stick to the regime, they will lose everything."

However, Al-Karadaghi says that a sustained U.S. presence, likely lasting for several years, could be required to ensure that a civilian-based and participatory government survives. He says such a presence is needed because it could be difficult for the different Iraqi groups to cooperate in running the country. "In the last three decades, systematically, all kinds of dissent was very harshly and brutally crushed, and any person who was a potential leader was either killed or in exile. So this created very big differences between all these groups, and this is why up to now different Iraqi groups cannot even agree on a personality who would be the leader of the Iraqi opposition, even as a figurehead."

The shape of any new order in Iraq is another question still to be answered. Exiled opposition groups -- which include groups ranging in ideology from monarchist to Islamist -- have called for a broad-based, participatory government. But the degree of support within Iraq for exiled leaders is uncertain.

U.S. officials have stepped up their talks with the exiled Iraqi opposition movement. U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney addressed Iraqi opposition representatives gathered in Washington over the weekend by video link from a vacation retreat in Wyoming. It was the first such high-level address since June 2000, when opposition leaders met former Vice President Al Gore.

U.S. State Department spokesman Philip Reeker said afterward that the meeting included talks about holding a broad-based political conference "in the next few months" that would comprise additional opposition groups, such as exiled former Iraqi military officers.

Iraqi opposition leaders say their goal is to end Saddam's dictatorship and set up a democratic government based on a federal structure. Several of the opposition groups have said they want Washington to bring about a democratic revolution rather than engineer a coup against Saddam, which might risk bringing another autocratic -- but Western-leaning -- leader into power.

(Part 2 looks at the challenges Iraq would encounter in creating a broad-based government.)