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Iran/Iraq: U.S. General Expresses Views On Region's Politics

Prague, 13 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The following is an interview with General Anthony Zinni, commander in chief of the US Central Command. The command is responsible for the geographic area from Jordan to Pakistan, the Arabian Peninsula, Central Asia, and East Africa.

The director of RFE/RL's Iraqi Service, David Newton, spoke with General Zinni by telephone at the Central Command's headquarters in Florida earlier this week.

Q: General Zinni, you recently returned from a trip to the Arabian peninsula. What were your impressions, particularly with regard to attitudes in the region toward Iraq, and what views did you hear about the air campaign?

A: Well, I felt that the leaders I spoke to and the people I spoke to in the region had really felt that (Iraqi President) Saddam (Hussein) and his regime were isolated. I think most people felt like after the Desert Fox operation and his actions -- particularly his statements toward some of the leaders in the region and his inability to work with the UN inspectors -- had really caused him to become isolated not only from the leadership but also from the people. I also find that there is great concern for the Iraqi people and their welfare and what is happening as a result of the actions of the regime in the region. And support for what we are trying to do in enforcing the sanctions and also in trying to find an alternative to Saddam and his regime.

Q: Our impression here is that Iraqi air defense challenges to the coalition aircraft in the southern no-fly zone have been relatively low-level in the past month or so. Is that correct, or is the world simply more focused on Kosovo?

A: Well, it was true. But recently in the last two weeks or so, it has picked up. We went through a period after Kosovo started where things seemed to quiet down. The Iraqi challenges to the no-fly zone, their attempts to either lock us on with radar or shoot at our airplanes had really fallen off, and then all of a sudden it picked back up and in the last two weeks it has become more intense. There has been Triple A (anti-aircraft artillery) firing at our planes, radars locking onto our airplanes, there have been strikes in Northern Watch (the northern no-fly zone) and Southern Watch (southern zone) in reaction to these actions. As a matter of fact, today we had both Northern Watch and Southern Watch react to threats to our airplanes. So, it has picked up considerably in the last couple of weeks.

Q: We have also noticed the rhetoric from Baghdad has been fairly intense in predicting the confrontation with the US and the United Kingdom. Do you have any views of why Saddam has not taken advantage of the high operational tempo against Yugoslavia in order to create a crisis to strain American and British military capabilities against Iraq?

A: I think there are a couple of reasons. One, obviously, that he can see our force has not really been diminished in the region. The military capabilities that we keep in the area in order to carry out our missions of sanctions enforcement and the ability to react to anything he might try, those capabilities are still in place and could well respond. I think, also, we are seeing a lot of internal problems he is having. He has had significant problems, particularly in the south with the Shiia marsh Arabs. There have been very harsh and extreme measures taken by his security forces against them. There was the assassination of Ayatollah (Mohammad Sadek) al-Sadr, the reaction to that. I think he also has problems in his military. We have had reports of executions and arrests and I think there is some distrust and dissatisfaction. These internal problems, and probably the realization that we have not reduced the force levels to anything that would make us more vulnerable probably kept him at bay.

Q: I know the point has been made by American officials in the past that the step-by-step destruction of the (Iraqi) air defenses could increase disaffection in the military, and I think what you are saying is that you see some evidence that this is occurring.

A: Well, you know, unfortunately for the poor soldiers on the ground, air defenders and others, Saddam does not really care about their losses. He puts them in impossible positions. They are ordered to fire at and engage our planes when they know that engagements are not going to be effective and it would be a stroke of luck for them to succeed in getting an airplane. And they know that we are going to react to these things because of our rules of engagement and the need for self-protection and when we react to these air defense systems and attack them the end result is that the poor soldiers on the ground pay the price for the orders they have been given, which are impossible to carry out.

Q: In your visit to the Arab Gulf states, what impressions did you get about Iran. We had the recent visit, just now, of Prince Sultan, the Saudi Arabian defense minister (to Iran), could this be a harbinger of any change in Arab-Iranian relations in the Gulf?

A: I think there are sort of mixed reactions. I would say that overall most of the leaders in the region and people in the region are encouraged by (Iranian President Mohammad ) Khatami's successes and the successes the moderates have achieved in elections and in other areas. There is still a lot of caution, concern over the weapons of mass destruction program and the direction in which it is headed, concern over the action of the intelligence service and support for terrorist activity which seem to be unabated, the military development, missile testing and development -- all that seems to be unchanged and that I think is where the caution comes in. Also, local disputes, in the case of the United Arab Emirates and the disputes over the islands (Abu Mussa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs), the seeming unwillingness of the Iranians to engage in some sort of negotiations regarding the fate of the islands ... promises to do so but not fulfilled. I think there is a feeling that we ought to encourage the moderates but still there is a long way to go and we ought to go slow. I think that is the general attitude I perceive, at least, out there.

Q: To turn for a minute to the Iraqi opposition, they recently had an important meeting in London to re-organize. And they seem to be becoming more active and they are now talking about a general conference. Do you see any evidence yet that the opposition is moving in the direction of some capability to engage Saddam's regime militarily?

A: I think, first of all, that the fact the opposition are trying to come together, iron out their own differences, work in a united way, is very encouraging and I am very supportive of all that, I think that is what they ought to do. They ought to think and plan for a post-Saddam regime and iron out their own differences beforehand so it does not present a problem when that eventuality comes to pass. But I am cautious on talking about arming opposition groups and bringing opposition groups in from outside (or) creating military units and arming them and bringing them in. I think all that gets to be fairly risky and I do not detect the support in the region for that sort of thing. I think there is a lot of concern about the outcomes and what that might mean. Most people feel that change has to come from within the country, so I would be much more cautious in terms of arming the opposition, but I would encourage the opposition to continue working politically to iron out their differences and to present a united front.

Q: The opposition leaders themselves, most recently we heard this from Jalal Talabani, the Kurdish leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, they are quoting US officials as saying that 1999 will be a decisive year to bring about change in the government of Iraq. Can you clarify what is meant by this prediction?

A: Well, I am not sure what that is based on. I think there is some evidence that Saddam's position has been somewhat weakened, if anything Desert Fox did not cause it but probably revealed some cracks in his own grip, again maybe within the military and with certain elements of his people, like the Shiia and others. I think we are a long way from him losing control or becoming so vulnerable that he could be toppled in any short-term timeline. I think it is too soon to predict that something could happen that quickly. He is very ruthless. He has been taking ruthless action on those who speak out against him or demonstrate against him. (There is) no sign in my viewing of this that (it) has weakened him to the point where it is imminent or that we put a time on it, in that short a frame.

Q: For a final question, if I could just turn back for a second ... you said that you are able to maintain the same capabilities despite the air activity in Kosovo. We have read that (US) President Bill Clinton now has several options, according to the press, of how much he would increase his aircraft strength, maybe to as much as 1,100 aircraft against Serbia. What kind of pressures would this level put on the availability of air assets that you would have?

A: To this point we have not provided or been asked to provide any support for the Kosovo operation that would degrade our ability to carry out our day-to-day mission of sanctions enforcement and the protection of the region and also to protect our own forces and what might be threatened, like Kuwait or Saudi Arabia, and in addition to that to be able to react to anything that might happen. So, there is no indication that anyone is going to ask us to go below what I would consider a minimum level to be able to do the mission and react to any immediate threat. So, I am comfortable that we have sufficient force and no-one is contemplating bringing us below that force to do what we need to do out there if the time came.

I would like to say a few words, maybe, which would be directed to the Iraqi people. I have studied the history of Iraq and, obviously, have been out in the region. I spent some time in northern Iraq after the Gulf War. I really feel that this is a great culture with a very rich history in a country which is very wealthy in terms of natural resources -- oil, water -- it is a shame that it has been reduced to this and it is the result of one man's action. I have seen firsthand what he has done to his own people, and what he does to his neighbors, and I believe that this country could be great again if they could get the kind of responsive, representative government and a replacement for the tyranny and the dictatorship and the aggression that they have now. And I would hope that day comes. I would like to see it before I leave here.