Matthew Engel in Washington
Wednesday January 9, 2002
The Bush administration appeared to drop a strong hint yesterday that an invasion of Iraq was off its immediate agenda following comments by the Pentagon's leading hawk, the deputy defence secretary, Paul Wolfowitz.
He told the New York Times that the main focus of America's war on terror remained Afghanistan, but suggested that future plans would centre on denying terrorists safe haven in countries where they had been operating freely in certain areas.
He mentioned the familiar foursome of Somalia, Yemen, Indonesia and the Philippines.
"Obviously Somalia comes up as a possible candidate for al-Qaida people to flee to, precisely because the government is weak or non-existent," Mr Wolfowitz said.
His remarks included the ritualised Washington warning to President Saddam Hussein, who, he said, was "keeping his head down". But he added: "That should not leave the impression he doesn't continue to do a bunch of things that concern us."
However, the absence of any direct threat to the Iraqi leader was interpreted by the New York Times and some analysts in Washington as marking a retreat from the notion of direct military intervention.
The interview comes less than a week after the state department said that it was halting funds to the main opposition group to President Saddam, the Iraqi National Congress. It said the INC had failed to account properly for previous grants.
The INC has insisted that it will refile its accounts in time to meet a deadline of January 15, and claimed that it had been punished by elements in the state department opposed to invading Iraq. However, the move made it far less credible that the INC and the US were preparing to be partners in a major military expedition.
Mr Wolfowitz is regarded as the main advocate for action against President Saddam within the administration, alongside Richard Perle, the chairman of the quasi-governmental defence policy board.
There is clear sympathy for many of his ideas, but there has been no sign that they have ever been accepted at the most senior levels, given the political, diplomatic and military obstacles.
The plan to use the INC as the means to topple the regime has been derided as a potential "Bay of Goats" by Anthony Zinni, the retired US marine corp general who is the president's envoy to the Middle East.
Newsweek reported this week that the joint chiefs had been studying a plan that would put 50,000 US troops on Iraq's northern and southern borders, but added that planners doubted that even this level of force would be sufficient to capture Baghdad.
Lieutenant-General Paul Mikolashek, the commander of US ground forces in the region, is on record as believing that it would require something like the much larger number of American and allied troops used in Operation Desert Storm to stand any chance of overthrowing the regime.
"Everyone would like to get rid of Saddam and nobody's got a good idea how to do it," said Judith Kipper, an Iraq expert at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.
"This president cannot afford to do anything in Iraq unless there's a 100% guarantee of success. If he goes in and fails to get the guy, he would destroy his own legacy, and that of his father."
Ms Kipper believes that President Saddam is currently focused on a domestic agenda - in particular, ensuring his dynastic succession - and will do his utmost to avoid foreign adventures which might give the US an excuse for invasion.
She also considers domestic political dangers to be another major reason why President Bush cannot order an attack.
"If there was a credible military or CIA strategy, then he'd do it. But there isn't and there can't be," Ms Kipper said.
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