Next Up: Saddam

After September 11, Washington sees Iraq’s weapons capabilities as a direct and intolerable threat to American national security. So what will be done?

By Christopher Dickey and John Barry

Jan. 7 issue —  Saddam Hussein lives for vengeance. But in 2002 the Iraqi dictator, who haunted the ’90s, could well get a taste of someone else’s wrath. And for President George W. Bush, it will be personal.

IN 1993, AFTER THE GULF WAR and after the first President Bush retired as commander in chief, Saddam tried to murder him with a car bomb in Kuwait, but the Clinton administration didn’t want to hear about it. The new president’s staff encouraged diplomats in the region to play down the aborted attack, especially the incriminating evidence that pointed directly to Baghdad. The reasons: the White House didn’t want to have to react; it didn’t have a policy for eliminating Saddam; it wasn’t even sure how best to contain him. Eventually, reluctantly, Bill Clinton fired off a few cruise missiles and relied on exile groups, covert conspiracies and overt sanctions to defang the vengeful dictator. That policy fell apart in 1998, and four days of intense bombing called Operation Desert Fox couldn’t put it back together again. So now George the Son is president. But even as he wraps up his “war on terror” in Afghanistan and looks at other fronts, his aides tell the press that Bush hasn’t decided what to do about Iraq.

       That’s only half true. In principle, Bush and his national-security team have decided that Saddam has to go, U.S. officials say. “The question is not if the United States is going to hit Iraq; the question is when,” says a senior American envoy in the Middle East. Bush intends to eliminate Iraq’s ability to build, use and share with terrorists a devastating arsenal of mass destruction. In the aftermath of September 11, Washington sees this clearly as a direct threat to its national security that cannot be tolerated and should be eliminated, say U.S. diplomats in the Middle East. Faced with such resolve, vital regional allies Turkey, Jordan, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia—all of which border Iraq—are quietly saying they’re ready to cooperate. They may help convince European allies that the moment has come to take on Saddam. “If there is a war against terror, then Iraq is part of the terror,” Kuwaiti Information Minister Ahmad al-Fahad al-Sabah told NEWSWEEK. An adviser to Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah says that discussions about targeting Saddam have already begun: “Suppose we agree with you Americans? How do you plan to do it? That is the dialogue right now.”

How indeed? Despite the tough talk, the administration has barely begun to grapple with the challenge of taking out Saddam. NEWSWEEK has learned that the Joint Chiefs of Staff, under heavy political pressure to produce options for military action against Iraq, have been looking at a study that suggests putting 50,000 U.S. troops on its southern border; another 50,000 U.S. troops on its northern border; then sending the two forces toward Baghdad in the middle. But planners doubt that even that force would be enough to take Baghdad. The current commander of U.S. ground forces in the region, Lt. Gen. Paul Mikolashek, suggested a few days before 9-11 that to take Baghdad and overthrow the regime would require forces “at least at the level” of Desert Storm—when around 169,000 U.S. combat troops were deployed (along with twice that number of support troops). There’s deep skepticism among the senior military that Bush, shown these sorts of numbers, will still seek to embark on such a huge expedition. At the other end of the scale, members of the exiled Iraqi opposition claim that a sustained demonstration of American resolve, including a willingness to deploy troops, will lead to popular rebellions inside Iraq and mass desertions within Saddam’s army, and will result sooner rather than later in his overthrow —without actually requiring the use of such large American forces. It was Clinton’s obviously halfhearted approach, they say, that undermined earlier efforts along these lines.

       To sway the debate, a pitched bureaucratic battle is being waged over the operational details. “The people who are opposed—the way they are trying to screw it up is by taking control of how to do it,” says Ahmed Chalabi, an Iraqi opposition leader who is rapidly becoming one of the most controversial figures in Washington. His enemies say his Iraqi National Congress has more of a presence in the District of Columbia than in Iraq, but among his inside-the-Beltway supporters he counts Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Pentagon deputy Paul Wolfowitz. Arrayed against Chalabi are Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet, Secretary of State Colin Powell and his deputy Richard Armitage. As these policymakers wrangle over methods and timing, they’ve created some confusion among allies who would like to be helpful. “We get the smell that something is cooking in Washington,” says a senior Turkish official, “but we don’t know exactly what it is.” Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit is due to go to Washington for talks in mid-January that he says will help to clarify plans for Iraq. But the trend lines are clear. “We have the feeling something is going on,” says Kuwait’s al-Fahad al-Sabah. “And the Iraqis are feeling it even more.”

 What none of America’s allies want is a return to the ineffectual harassment of Saddam—and the privations imposed on his people—that marked noncommittal American policy for a decade. He’s proved too durable, and remains too dangerous, for that. “Saddam comes from a tribe that believes in revenge, and he was raised on it,” warns a Jordanian intelligence officer. “We don’t want you to botch it up,” says a gulf diplomat in Washington. “You are 8,000 miles away. You don’t suffer the consequences. We do. So we urge rational and clearheaded and realistic thinking linked with firmness. Show me a plan that will work. I’ll even pay for it.”

The Russians and America’s European allies are openly skeptical of media reports that attempt to link Saddam directly to the events of September 11. Most of Washington’s partners in the coalition fighting terrorism have warned against opening up a “second front” against Iraq until Al Qaeda is finished. They hope the Bush administration will concentrate for now on diplomatic efforts to revive “smart” sanctions and get weapons inspectors back into Iraq under U.N. auspices. For the most part, the administration is ready to follow that course. “There will be a second phase where we look at all the different aspects of international terrorism—issues to do with weapons of mass destruction,” British Prime Minister Tony Blair told NEWSWEEK recently. “But the method of acting, that’s something for later deliberation.”

       Moscow dropped its objections to new sanctions in November, and State Department officials saw that as a major breakthrough. Russia has signed tens of billions of dollars in trade deals with Baghdad, but Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksandr Saltanov recently confessed to a gathering of pro-Iraqi businessmen that it was “increasingly difficult for Russia to fight alone” against tightening sanctions. In any case, few diplomats expect Iraq to accept the Security Council’s terms: limited economic sanctions, but unlimited access for arms inspectors. “The ball is in Saddam’s court,” says one European diplomat. “But the signs aren’t good.” Diplomacy will have run its course, in all probability, by early summer. “If Iraq is not positive on the sanctions, then of course there will be a reaction,” says al-Fahad al-Sabah.
        Just what kind of reaction will also depend on what the Bush strategists can cook up by then. Six months from now the lasting success—or not—of the present Afghan campaign should be apparent. Lessons learned can then be applied to Iraq, and not all of them will be military. Iran’s role, for instance, is critical. Part of the reason the gulf-war coalition allowed Saddam to smash uprisings in northern and southern Iraq in 1991 was to stop Iran from pouring its militias into the country.

       As for what may happen on the Iraqi battlefield, U.S. military leaders are dismissive of the Afghan examples they’ve seen so far. Enthusiasts (most of them civilians) proclaim that Operation Enduring Freedom has revealed what air power and Special Operations forces and a popular uprising can achieve. But Saddam’s Republican Guard is a disciplined mechanized force that’s nothing like the ragtag Taliban. Rebel Kurdish factions control about a quarter of Iraq—much more than the Northern Alliance held in Afghanistan at the start of the war. However, they frequently fight each other, and occasionally forge alliances with Saddam himself. In the south, most Shiite groups have been smashed, and the strongest are closely tied to Tehran.
        Yet the Pentagon is building up its administrative resources in the region and preparing for the contingencies of war. The U.S. Third Army is moving its headquarters to Kuwait, something it has done before during exercises, but a potent symbol under present circumstances. The Air Force has beefed up the operations of its Combined Air Operations Center at Prince Sultan air base in Saudi Arabia. That unit has been running the Afghanistan air operations, while also handling the daily grind of patrolling the no-flight zone over southern Iraq. Now the Air Force has split the planning cell in two, with one devoted entirely to preparing an air campaign over Iraq.
        Deterrence is no longer enough to contain Saddam, says an influential Republican in Washington, and the national mood after September 11 has set the stage for action. The notion that a showdown with Iraq can be avoided in the year to come is “inconceivable,” he says. As President Bush has announced on several occasions, he will pick the time to deal with Saddam Hussein. But that time is drawing near.

With Roy Gutman and Tamara Lipper in Washington, Christian Caryl in Moscow, Sami Kohen in Istanbul, Maziar Bahari in Tehran and Tara Pepper in London

       © 2002 Newsweek, Inc.