The White House is turning up the heat on Saddam Hussein, with the U.S. media reporting that President George W. Bush has ordered new covert efforts to topple the Iraqi leader. But despite the strong rhetoric, the U.S. government appears divided over how to achieve what it calls "regime change" in Iraq.
Washington, 18 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The United States is turning up the pressure on Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein ahead of fresh talks early next month between the United Nations and Baghdad on possibly letting weapons inspectors back into the country.
U.S. President George W. Bush, who accuses Iraq of seeking weapons of mass destruction, or WMD, possibly in league with terrorists, has often demanded that Baghdad allow the inspectors back in or risk confrontation with Washington.
United Nations inspectors looking for chemical, biological, and nuclear arms have not returned to Iraq since they left in late 1998. U.S. and British forces, which still patrol "no fly" zones in southern and northern Iraq 10 years after the Persian Gulf War, bombed the country shortly after the inspectors' departure.
U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, speaking a day after American media reported that Bush has ordered a significant increase in covert U.S. efforts to topple Saddam, said Monday that Iraq is becoming increasingly dangerous as it pursues its weapons programs free from UN scrutiny. "Every day that goes by, its [WMD] development programs mature. And to the extent they become more mature, obviously the capabilities, both for the weapons of mass destruction themselves, as well as the ability to deliver them, evolve as well," Rumsfeld said.
Iraqi officials are scheduled to meet with the UN on 3 and 4 July for a fresh round of talks on possibly returning the arms inspectors. Baghdad's Foreign Ministry on Sunday demanded as a condition for their return the lifting of all UN economic sanctions against the country.
Those demands, which analysts call unrealistic, appeared on the same day as a report in "The Washington Post" daily that said the U.S. is likely to crank up the heat on Saddam even further.
The article by Bob Woodward, the investigative reporter who helped uncover the Watergate scandal that led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon in 1974, cited anonymous "informed sources" as saying that Bush signed an order earlier this year directing the Central Intelligence Agency, or CIA, to broaden its efforts to topple Saddam, including using lethal force against him.
The report called the intelligence order an expansion of previous efforts designed to oust Saddam. Among other things, it directs the CIA to increase its financial, military, and intelligence support of Iraqi opposition groups inside and outside the country and to expand intelligence gathering among officials in Iraq's government, military, security services, and population "where pockets of intense anti-Hussein sentiment have been detected."
The intelligence order also reportedly calls for possible use of CIA or U.S. special forces, such as those used in the recent Afghan war, with the authority to kill Saddam "in self-defense."
Support for the reported plans was quickly voiced by key Congressional leaders of both parties. Senator John McCain summed up their views. "I believe that we should try covert action or a combination of U.S. special forces, air power, and groups within Iraq. But we need to be prepared to do whatever is necessary, so it is certainly not surprising that the president would sign off on such activities," McCain said.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri played down the report, telling a group of foreign reporters in Baghdad on Monday that, "It is not new...the United States has been conspiring against Iraq over the last 30 years."
The U.S., which went to war with Baghdad after it invaded Kuwait in 1990, has made "regime change" in Iraq its official policy since the late 1990s. And although Bush has said he has no war plans on his desk, the U.S. media continue to speculate that conflict with Iraq is not a question of "if," but "when."
On a tour of Europe last month, Bush sought to rally support for a U.S.-led overthrow of Saddam, including during a speech to the German parliament, the Bundestag. He made this remark to reporters in Berlin: "The world knows my position about Saddam Hussein. He is a dangerous man. He is a dictator who gassed his own people. He has had a history of incredible human-rights violations, and you know, it's dangerous to think of a scenario in which a country like Iraq would team up with an Al-Qaeda-type organization."
Since his return from Europe, there have been further signs of increasing U.S. pressure on Baghdad. Last week, the State Department ordered the expulsion of the first secretary of Iraq's UN mission in New York on charges that he was spying on America.
An Iraqi newspaper owned by one of Saddam's sons on Monday denounced the expulsion, saying Bush was seeking to "create a new crisis."
Meanwhile, Rumsfeld confirmed on Monday that the U.S. will reserve the right to strike preemptively against terrorists or states plotting to attack the United States. The defense secretary said that it would be difficult to have advance knowledge of such an attack, but he added: "It would also be difficult to know that a terrorist organization is about to fly airplanes into the Pentagon or the World Trade Center, and not do something preemptively. In other words, what else can you do other than go after those terrorists?"
But despite the turning up the heat on Saddam, which analysts say is also intended to put the Iraqi leader under psychological pressure -- perhaps to induce him to allow UN inspectors back in the country -- there are signs that U.S. policy on Iraq is far from unified.
According to analysts and media reports, uniformed military leaders at the Pentagon have been lobbying Bush to cool off his bellicose rhetoric toward Iraq. They have reportedly told Bush they would back action against Iraq only if it involved overwhelming force -- more than 200,000 U.S. troops -- and not merely a handful of special forces backed by opposition troops on the ground.
Furthermore, there is a reported disagreement between the Pentagon, on the one hand, and the CIA and State Department, on the other, over which Iraqi opposition forces to back.
The CIA and State Department are reportedly seeking to undermine the Iraqi National Congress, a U.S.-funded umbrella group that they reportedly believe lacks credibility. The State Department has recently proposed cutting off funding for INC intelligence-gathering efforts and says it is working to broaden its contacts with different Iraqi groups.
The Pentagon, meanwhile, reportedly continues to view he INC as the key Iraqi opposition group and its leader, Ahmad Chalabi, as a hero of democracy in a region of tyrants.
But some commentators question how effective the U.S. can be in seeking to topple Saddam if key government agencies appear more concerned with change in the Iraqi opposition than in the government itself.