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U.S.: Mideast Policy -- Does The Road To Jerusalem Run Through Baghdad?

U.S. President George W. Bush this week appeared to end confusion over his Middle East policy, largely siding with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and calling for Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's removal. Analysts say the decision signals a victory for the "hawks" in the Bush administration, who believe using U.S. military might could solve problems that have defied Mideast diplomats for decades. Some in the U.S. capital, however, believe such thinking is dangerously simplistic.

Washington, 26 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Does the road to Jerusalem run through Baghdad? It could, if Baghdad signifies a U.S.-led overthrow of Iraq's Saddam Hussein and Jerusalem an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the victory of democracy over autocracy across the Muslim Middle East.

A few U.S. analysts believe the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush is determined to strike Iraq militarily and may try to use a victory over Saddam as a springboard to forge a final settlement on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and spark the fall of so-called "rogue regimes" from Tripoli and Tehran to Damascus.

The idea may appear improbable, but Raymond Tanter, a member of former President Ronald Reagan's National Security Council and professor emeritus at the University of Michigan, said it is not without historical precedent.

Like several others, Tanter, a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and the author of a book called "Rogue Regimes: Terrorism and Proliferation," points to the U.S. victory in the 1990-91 Persian Gulf War over Iraq as a defining moment in recent Middle East history. Tanter said it established the ground conditions, i.e., it provided political resources and momentum, for America to persuade Israel's Muslim foes to endorse the Mideast peace process in the early 1990s.

More than a decade after Saddam's forces were driven out of Kuwait, Tanter said a well-executed U.S. overthrow of the Iraqi leader now would transform the regional political playing field, achieving success with military force where years of diplomacy have failed. "I believe that the road to Jerusalem goes through Baghdad. The road to Tehran goes through Baghdad. The road to Damascus goes through Baghdad. That is to say, if you change the regime through force in Baghdad, American military power will cast a long diplomatic shadow, and it will be America's decade in the Middle East," Tanter said.

Other analysts, however, say that notion is dangerously simplistic, and caution that the Middle East today is different, and far more anti-American, than 10 years ago. They say U.S. Mideast policy, by totally supporting Israel and signaling its willingness to use force to solve intractable problems, is adding fuel to the fire that inspires terrorists such as Osama bin Laden, who has been blamed for plotting the attacks of 11 September.

Until yesterday, Bush's Middle East policy had appeared caught between the more hawkish elements of his administration, who favor strong U.S. support for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, such as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney, and those who advocate more balanced diplomacy, such as Secretary of State Colin Powell.

But yesterday, in his speech in the White House Rose Garden, Bush attempted to clarify that confusion, demanding that Palestinians jettison Arafat as their leader and carry out major institutional reforms as conditions for statehood, which could be realized in three years.

Analysts say that decision marks a victory by Rumsfeld, Cheney, and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, who have lobbied to sideline Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat as an unreliable peace partner tainted by terrorism. Indeed, Wolfowitz spoke openly after the events of 11 September of "ending" states that sponsor terrorism in language later played down by the White House.

Judith Kipper is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and co-directs the Middle East program at Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies. She made this observation: "I think there might be some bluster in the thinking in some places in Washington that if the U.S. can change the regime in Iraq and sort of rearrange the map in the Middle East, that it will force the Palestinians to accept things that they have not been willing to accept, and that it will force other countries to move toward doing what the U.S. would like to see them do, and that is more participation, democratization, and cooperation in the war on terrorism."

Although he says he has no war plans on his desk, Bush makes no secret of his commitment to "regime change" in Iraq, accusing Saddam of developing weapons of mass destruction that could be passed on to terrorists or used against American interests. Bush has forcefully lobbied European and Russian allies to back some kind of campaign against Saddam, but so far without any visible success.

Saddam yesterday warned Iraqis to prepare for an escalation in what he called the "American-Zionist conspiracy" against Iraq. Saddam told the official Iraqi news agency that, "the American-Zionist conspiracy against you [Iraqis] will gain more ferocity because the Americans and Zionists...see you united, organized, and you are besieged and are developing."

Tanter believes Washington is pursuing a coherent policy toward Baghdad that has so far included economic sanctions and political isolation and more recently has focused on covert operations. The U.S. media has reported that Bush signed a directive earlier this year ordering U.S. intelligence agencies to pursue the overthrow of Saddam, including assassination if necessary.

Tanter also said American military intervention may be inevitable if covert operations cannot achieve a regime change. Tanter said such action could involve some 200,000 U.S. troops, what he called "going in heavy."

"The administration is taking all the preparatory actions to use military force before the spring of 2003 if covert operations are not successful in combination with diplomatic means and economic sanctions in effecting regime change," Tanter said.

Most analysts say Bush's speech virtually gave a green light to Sharon to continue his military crackdown on the Arab West Bank, which the Israeli leader says is aimed at rooting out Palestinian militants.

But many Arab commentators say Bush is being wildly unbalanced and that such a position will only make further terrorism against the U.S. more likely.

Although Bush did make some demands on Israel -- that it must eventually end its occupation of Palestinian areas and stop building Jewish settlements there -- he offered no olive branches to Arab governments to offset the blunt treatment of Arafat.

Rather, Bush delivered a stern warning to Arab governments. He told Israel's neighbors that they must meet strict conditions, including stopping support of terrorist groups that seek Israel's destruction and the opposition of "regimes that promote terror, like Iraq," if they are to avoid America's wrath and be considered "with" and not "against" the U.S.-led war on terrorism.

Some analysts say, though, that it is unrealistic to expect support from traditional U.S. Arab allies, such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, or Jordan, for an American-led attack on Iraq.

Edward Atkeson, a retired major general in the U.S. Army and an expert in Mideast military affairs, is a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He said most of the world, including Arab countries, backed the U.S.-led liberation of Kuwait. But now, Atkeson said, Muslim public opinion is much different on the matter of ousting Saddam without a clear motive. "The Palestinian intifada has raised a sort of spiritual loyalty there so that a lot of them [Arabs, Muslims] are pretty skeptical of the American position and intentions. And now, with the president's very pro-Israeli speech, it'll be even more difficult to get support from a broad spectrum of Arab countries," Atkeson said.

Atkeson is also dismissive of the idea that overthrowing Saddam will give Washington the freedom to reorder the Mideast, including solving the Israeli-Palestinian question. "The Israelis have been occupying the West Bank for about 35 years now. And there've been lots of wars, and we've had lots of successes and lots of failures, but I don't see that the situation is very different today than it was 35 years ago," Atkeson said.

But Tanter is convinced that victory in Iraq would create "electrical energy" that the U.S. could then convert into political success across a Middle East dominated by anti-Western governments that suppress their people's political and civil rights and support terrorism.

"If you change the regime forcefully in Baghdad, you cower the dictator in Syria, in Libya, and the other rogue states become less roguish in their conduct. And the Machiavelli dictum will kick in: America would rather be respected and feared than loved, and power casts a long political shadow," Tanter said.

But before the U.S. can act against Baghdad, Tanter said it is likely to require a provocation on the part of Iraq to legitimize its intervention.

That could come in the form of Iraqi defiance in the face of United Nations efforts to get Baghdad to accept the return of inspectors looking for programs to develop biological, chemical, or nuclear weapons of mass destruction. Saddam has used chemical weapons twice already, against Kurds following the Persian Gulf War and against Iranians during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s.

Weapons inspectors have not been in Iraq since late 1998. Iraq and the UN are scheduled to meet on 4-5 July in Vienna for a third round of talks on whether to allow the inspectors' return to Baghdad.

Charles Duelfer, who was second in command of the UN inspection team in Iraq throughout the 1990s, said he believes the UN talks will lead nowhere. "There will be no agreement on inspectors going back in, and my guess is there may be no agreement to even continue the dialogue," Duelfer said.

Iraq this week, through an influential Baghdad newspaper, said UN economic sanctions on the country must be lifted before the inspectors are allowed back in. Such Iraqi intransigence, over time, could put Washington's bluster to the test.