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Iraq: Future U.S. Policy Remains Irresolute

The Bush administration is beginning a review of U.S. policy toward Iraq which, during the Clinton years, relied mostly on sanctions to contain Saddam Hussein. The discussion comes as policy analysts in Washington are divided over whether the United States should now assume a more confrontational approach toward Saddam, including greater funding for the Iraqi opposition. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel reports.

Prague, 15 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Leaders of the Iraqi opposition in exile are holding meetings with U.S. officials in Washington in hopes of obtaining some $29 million of aid money for conducting operations within Iraq.

Representatives of the umbrella opposition organization, the Iraqi National Congress -- or INC -- this week talked with U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Edward Walker, who has responsibility for the Middle East. INC spokesman Sharif Ali Bin Al-Hussein told a reporter (from Reuters) afterwards that Walker did not provide final clearance for the money but requested the group hold further discussions with the Bush administration.

The Iraqi opposition in exile wants to use the funds for distributing food and medicine clandestinely inside Iraq, for gathering information there, and for funding broadcasts to the Iraqi population.

That would be in addition to clearance the Bush administration already has given the INC to spend $4 million in aid to initiate activities within Iraq.

The meetings with the Iraqi opposition come as the Bush administration begins the process of deciding in detail what will be its policy toward Baghdad. The process is being accompanied by a lively debate among Washington analysts over what the Bush White House can do differently than the Clinton administration and what risks and benefits might result.

In the debate, some analysts fault the Clinton administration for relying too much on sanctions to maintain its stated policy of "keeping Saddam in a box."

Laurie Mylroie, a regional expert, recently told Radio Free Iraq's Kamran Al-Karadaghi that sanctions alone can never remove the threat posed by Saddam.

"The biggest failing of the Clinton administration is that it has not addressed the threat Saddam Hussein poses to the region and to Americans because the Gulf War is not over. Above all, the Clinton administration took the position that sanctions alone can take care of Saddam's threat -- and they don't because Iraq retains a very large unconventional weapons capability and sanctions don't cause him to turn that over."

While in office, the Clinton administration rejected such criticisms, saying sanctions offered the best policy for internationally isolating Iraq until it proves it has no more weapons of mass destruction. Iraq has refused to admit UN arms monitors for more than two years, demanding sanctions be completely lifted instead.

The Bush administration has said one of its first priorities on Iraq will be to re-energize the sanctions regime. During the presidential campaign, Bush also threatened to use military force if Saddam, in his words, "crossed the line" of threatening his neighbors.

Analyst Mylroie says the Bush team should make removing Saddam from office the goal of its foreign policy toward Iraq. And she says Bush should help the INC gather the strength needed to topple the Baghdad regime.

"It would have been much better if [former President] George Bush had got rid of Saddam during the Gulf War or right after. That didn't happen. But, that said, it is much better that George Bush went to war with Iraq rather than rely on sanctions, which some people wanted to do back in 1990 to 1991."

She continues:

"And I will point out that the [new] Bush administration has been in office just a short time, but the decision was made to provide financial support to the INC so it can carry out operations in Iraq -- and that is a welcome first step."

The Clinton administration frequently said it favored a change of regime in Iraq. Yet it gave the INC only a fraction of some $97 million worth of aid authorized by Congress. And it limited that aid to helping strengthen the opposition's political organization.

Yet, if some analysts want to see the INC overthrow Saddam, others say the group is too weak to do so without needing the U.S. military to complete the job.

Ted Carpenter of the Cato Institute in Washington, says this risks drawing the United States into a military conflict in Iraq whose aftermath -- even if Saddam is ousted -- would be unpredictable.

"The elder President Bush [explicitly] rejected the option of sending American troops on to Baghdad to oust the Saddam Hussein regime precisely for the reasons that this would make the U.S. the imperial master of Iraq for an indefinite time, creating enormous resentment throughout the Islamic world and massive headaches for the U.S."

Carpenter says such a result would be very much at odds with what he sees as the current Bush administration's larger goal for the Gulf region, which is to lower the U.S. profile there.

"To topple Saddam from power is going to take far more effort than the Iraqi opposition is capable of mounting. That is going to mean either a very extensive CIA covert operation or more likely direct U.S. military involvement. And, of course, that raises the profile of U.S. policy in the region, it doesn't lower it."

He continues:

"And there is no end in sight with that mission. If we do topple Saddam, the U.S. is going to be responsible for post-Saddam Iraq, which could be a very unstable place and make a nation-building mission that would dwarf the undertakings in Bosnia and Kosovo."

As the debate in Washington continues, few analysts expect a resolution for many months.

The Bush administration is still in the process of forming teams of regional experts who will perform a detailed review of U.S. Iraq policy and make recommendations. Then a single strategy will have to be agreed upon. At the same time, Saddam's own actions over the next months will have an influence on Washington's decisions.

That means deciding what to do with Saddam could easily be as big a challenge for the Bush administration as it was for the Clinton team. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright alluded to just that in one of her last remarks before leaving office.

Taking a parting shot at Republican Party critics of the outgoing Democratic administration, she said: "You gave us Saddam Hussein. Now we give him back to you."