Washington, 29 January 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Senior U.S. officials say the U.S. Administration's policy for containing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is a success even though a top military officer concedes there is little hope at this time for an internal uprising that would overthrow Hussein.
The U.S. Senate summoned Defense Department Undersecretary Walter Slocombe and U.S. Marine Corps General Anthony Zinni to a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday. There was sharp questioning from Committee Chairman John Warner, a Republican of Virginia, and member John McCain, a Republican from Arizona, about the effectiveness of the U.S. policy of curbing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
McCain was especially skeptical about the value of the policy that calls for U.S. support for Iraqi opposition groups.
Zinni, the general who commands U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf, conceded that there is not much hope now of seeing Saddam ousted from within.
He told the committee: "I will be honest. I don't see an opposition group that has the viability to overthrow Saddam at this point."
Last fall, Zinni was critical of legislation approved in the last session of the U.S. Congress that provided up to 97 million dollars in overt assistance to anti-Saddam groups operating inside and outside Iraq.
He told the committee on Thursday that he remains skeptical about the policy, saying there are as many as 91 separate potential opposition groups. Zinni said: "They have little, if any, viability. Even if we had Saddam gone, we could end up with 15, 20, or 90 groups competing for power."
However, Slocombe defended the Clinton Administration program, calling support for the opposition part of a comprehensive strategy.
Slocombe said: "Now, with respect to seeking a new government in Iraq, there's a big difference between the question of whether any of the existing opposition groups inside or outside the country today have the capacity to overthrow the government of Iraq and a long-term strategy to facilitate a change in the regime.
"I would prefer to go into the details of that effort in the closed session, but I simply call attention to that distinction. We believe that we have a comprehensive strategy that does what we have to do in the short-term and the medium-term, which is to maintain the coalition, maintain sanctions and maintain a military readiness. And in the long-term develop a program that will maximize the chances of Iraq having the kind of government that its people deserve."
Slocombe also insisted that the policy of economic sanctions combined with diplomatic and military operations has been, as he put it, remarkably successful.
"First of all, with respect to maintaining the sanctions, the sanctions have the effect of imposing very heavy costs on the Iraqi economy.
"The Oil for Food Program serves both the humanitarian and a very important strategic and political purpose. It assures that the oil, and indeed more oil than he can produce, has to go through a system in which the use of the funds produced by that oil are, for all practical purposes, under U.S. control because we have a veto over decisions of the Sanctions Committee. That means that those resources are used for food, for medicine, for some basic humanitarian related infrastructure and necessarily..."
Zinni then described recent events over Iraq in the days after the joint U.S.-British air assault on Iraqi military installations last month that was called Desert Fox. Since then, U.S. plains patrolling the northern and southern zones where Iraqi aircraft are not permitted to fly have had to fire on Iraqi air defenses almost every day.
Zinni said: "Since Desert Fox, Saddam has gone on a program to attempt to shoot down our aircraft, and to assert the sovereignty over the no-fly zones. We have had over 70 violations of the no-fly zone. The violation, in our definition, is one or more aircraft that penetrate the no-fly zones, either in the north or the south. Probably been 120 or more Iraqi aircraft involved in these 70 plus violations. There have been almost 20 incidents of SAMs firing, AAA firings and radar illuminations while our aircraft had been in the box, in other words, in the no-fly zone air space in northern and southern Iraq. "
While no U.S. pilots have been hurt or any aircraft lost, Zinni said the Iraqi provocations posed a continuing danger.
He said: "I would emphasize, though, our pilots are still at risk. This is not an undangerous mission, if you will. But we have done everything to minimize that, and we have aggressively taken on the air defense systems in both zones."
Zinni's comments brought a harsh response from Sen. McCain, a fighter pilot veteran of the Vietnam War who spent several years in a North Vietnamese prisoner of war camp. McCain said he was "disturbed," by what he called a policy that puts U.S. pilots at risk but allows the Iraqis to, "come out and attack them ... with impunity."
McCain said he could not understand why the U.S. and Britain did not pursue Iraqi aircraft that violate the no-fly zones and then destroy the Iraqi air bases.
Gen. Zinni said such massive retaliation would require a much greater commitment of military resources and would entail much greater risks to pilots and aircraft.
Sen. Warner said he was troubled by what he called the contradictions in Clinton Administration policy toward Iraq. He also said the U.S. should not have to bear the heaviest burden in confronting Hussein and he said that eventually, the United Nations would have to find a solution.