STRATFOR, 12 February 2002
Despite the Bush administration's increasingly belligerent tone regarding Iraq, military strikes against the regime in Baghdad remain distant. The United States needs to plan a military campaign and subdue international opposition to such a move. Meanwhile, the largest question remains unsolved: Who could run Iraq after Saddam Hussein?
U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney is scheduled to visit the Middle East in March in what is seen as a prelude to potential U.S. military action against Saddam Hussein's regime. President George W. Bush recently explained Cheney's visit -- which will include stops in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Turkey and Kuwait, all of which border Iraq -- by saying, "There's nothing like looking somebody in the eye and letting them know that when we say we're going to fight terror, we mean it," according to the Guardian.
Despite the fiery rhetoric of the president's State of the Union address, there does not yet seem to be a clear consensus on how the United States should act against Iraq. Options range from a CIA-sponsored coup to a conventional military campaign similar to Desert Storm. But as complicated as this question is, a tougher question remains: Who will run Iraq after Saddam Hussein? The United States is unlikely to attack Iraq until it believes it has identified a suitable replacement regime. More than anything else, finding such a regime is the biggest hurdle keeping Washington from launching strikes.
It should be noted that removing Saddam from power would entail a shift in regimes, not simply a transfer of power. Arresting Saddam for war crimes -- assuming he left the country -- or assassinating him would not bring about much change, since Saddam has spent more than five years grooming his son Qusay as his successor.
Although Qusay, 35, keeps a lower profile than his reputedly psychotic elder brother Uday, he is no less ruthless. Qusay has almost total operational control over Iraq's armed forces, including the elite Republican Guard and the special security agency in charge of protecting the president. Since 1995, he has led efforts to conceal Iraq's programs for developing missiles and weapons of mass destruction, according to the U.S. State Department. Last summer, Qusay took on his first official role when he was elected to the Baath party's highest authority, its 18-member regional command.
Given the necessity of a complete regime shift, the United States must examine the replacement roster. Washington is not likely to throw its support to Iraq's largest opposition group, the Iraqi National Congress (INC), a conglomeration of resistance groups ranging from monarchists to Kurds to liberal democrats. Long derided as being more adept at running conferences in luxury hotels than running paramilitary teams, the INC has embraced Western political factionalism while remaining true to the best traditions of Middle Eastern corruption and inefficiency.
The INC claims it can raise several thousand armed fighters outside Iraq and more from inside the country. A recent New Yorker article examined an ambitious plan in which the United States would deploy INC forces inside Iraq to flush Saddam's military forces from their defensive positions around the country. This idea is not impossible, but a more accurate gauge of U.S. support may be the $2.4 million that Congress allocated for the INC on Jan. 30 -- far too little for the insurgent group to launch major operations.
Instead of embracing the INC, Washington might pick and choose the best allies from the ranks of the opposition. Most likely these would include the Kurdish forces in northern Iraq and/or Shiite groups in the south.
Though the Kurds feud with each other nearly as much as they fight with Saddam's forces, they have flourished under the protective air cover provided by the United States through the northern no-fly zone. The Kurds can likely put 45,000 armed men -- along with a handful of tanks and artillery pieces -- into the field, according to the International Institute of Strategic Studies.
Even if the military effectiveness of Kurdish forces was not in question, Washington would be creating a dilemma for itself by supporting them as a successor regime. Neither Iraq's Sunni and Shiite populations nor neighboring Turkey wants the Kurds to take power. Nor would Ankara agree to a campaign that would weaken Iraq's central government so much that the Kurdish areas could break away. Washington's allies in Turkey have spent decades fighting Kurdish separatists in the eastern half of their country, and they adamantly oppose giving Iraqi Kurds an official homeland -- which would both encourage and serve as a sanctuary for Turkish Kurds.
Iraq's southern Shiite populations pose another problem. Iranian-backed militant groups such as Islamic Call or the Supreme Council of the Islamic Resistance have been waging low-intensity campaigns for decades and could probably field about 5,000 irregular troops. But it looks extremely unlikely that Tehran would allow these groups to work with the United States. The normally icy relations between Tehran and Baghdad are thawing slightly since both consider the United States a greater threat than each other.
Furthermore, even if the Shiites did fight with the United States, Washington would face the same problem it would face with the Kurds. Any amount of Shiite control -- whether in Baghdad or on a regional level in the southeast -- would raise the specter of Iranian influence. Should the central government fall, a breakaway Shiite state would very likely become an Iranian rump state, giving the regime in Tehran greater territory and greater influence over oil fields in southern Iraq.
Also, whatever remained of the Iraqi state could not act as a tactical or strategic balance to Iran. The United States and the Persian Gulf states have long played Tehran and Baghdad against each other to ensure that neither dominates the other or, by extension, the Persian Gulf.
Given the problems with supporting the INC, Kurds or Shiites, Washington may be forced to look within the current regime in Baghdad for allies. The obvious choices are disaffected elements within the military.
Though the military has been the primary recipient of Saddam's largesse, it remains a significant source of dissent. A number of high-ranking officers have defected in the past decade -- including Wafiq al-Samarra, who was director of military intelligence during the Gulf War, and Gen. Nizar Khazraji, the chief of staff for the Iraqi army during that time. Khazraji is reportedly Washington's top choice to succeed Saddam, according to Iraqi opposition sources quoted in Al-Hayat, a London-based Arab daily.
Other officers opposed to Saddam continue to operate. For example, five Republican Guard officers were arrested in late 1999 for plotting to kill Qusai Hussein, according to Al-Qabas, a Kuwaiti daily. There also is substantial evidence that Iraqi military elements attempted to overthrow Saddam in 1998.
But Saddam is well aware of the potential threats and has arranged substantial precautions. His security services maintain a massive network of informants and regularly purge the top ranks of the military. Moreover, each army unit is "shadowed" by an equivalent unit of Republican Guard troops that makes it a point to stay between the regular army and Baghdad.
The other power centers in Iraq are the Sunni tribes that comprise the majority of the government and military. At least three-quarters of Iraq's population belongs to one of the nation's 150 tribes. Saddam has spent decades revitalizing the tribal distinctions within Iraqi society and uses these divisions to play competing tribes against one another. Saddam cannot control Iraq solely through his own relatives -- since his Tikriti tribe numbers only about 25,000 people -- but he influences loyal tribes with government or military positions, territorial authority and control of lucrative smuggling routes.
Tribal loyalties are fickle and pose a constant threat because tribes maintain militias. For example, Saddam cultivated ties with the Jaburi clan -- one of the largest in Iraq -- and was repaid with substantial support during the war with Iran. A few years later, however, members of the tribe conspired to kill Saddam. The guilty were punished, and he later reconciled with most of the tribe. Now, it appears that he is concerned about Jaburi loyalty once again.
Reports are sketchy, but it appears that Saddam is on questionable terms with several tribes: the Jaburi, the Ubayd, the Dulaym and even sections of his own tribe that are influenced by his three half-brothers. Sources inside Iraq suggest that Iraq's Sunni population would offer significantly less resistance to a tribe-sponsored coup than to a U.S. invasion or a Kurdish or Shiite power-grab.
Again, Saddam is aware of these threats to his regime and has taken precautions against them, according to sources inside the Iraqi regime. However, the anti-regime plots within the tribes have an advantage over those planned by the military, since blood loyalties make it more difficult for Iraqi government agents to infiltrate the tribes.
Of all the options for a post-Saddam regime, none are particularly impressive. Still, the Sunni tribes and to a lesser extent the military are the best tools Washington can wield least against Baghdad.
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