Focus: Iraq crisis- Saddam follows old script

The besieged president is almost immune to coups and is still prepared to gamble on weathering a storm of missiles

WE HAVE been here before. On the eve of the six-week bombing campaign in 1991, Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi leader, began to show last- minute flexibility. He even offered to withdraw from Kuwait. Then the concessions came too late. One diplomat recalls: "The US was not going to offer him a ladder to climb down from the position he had taken up."

Eight years later, President Saddam again has had second thoughts. As the world waited for the bombing to begin, he said he "did not want a crisis". But he will not easily get off the hook. Iraq is isolated. It has alienated potential allies in the UN Security Council and the Middle East. The US and Britain are in a better position to strike than they have been for years. They will look for a complete climbdown by the Iraqi leader.

Saddam has clearly miscalculated. He started escalating the crisis on 5 August when he broke off talks with the UN Special Committee on eliminating Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and stopped all new inspections. On 31 October he ended co-operation with the committee, although he did not expel the inspectors or dismantle the surveillance cameras installed in Iraqi factories.

He seems to have imagined that the US would allow him to dictate the pace of escalation, as it did last February. Then it tried, and publicly failed, to win support for air strikes at home and abroad. Saddam may also have believed, along with most American pundits, that President Clinton was about to suffer a defeat in the mid-term elections.

But the Democrats' success strengthened Mr Clinton's hand and it was the US which suddenly escalated the crisis. All UN personnel were withdrawn from Iraq at American insistence last week and the US immediately turned to the military option. Late in the day, Saddam discovered he had overplayed his hand.

Politically, it would have been easier for the US and Britain to launch air strikes against Iraq than at any time since the last cruise-missile attack in 1996. But fundamental questions still remained for Washington and London. What would the bombing have achieved other than a crude demonstration of military strength? And what would the Allies have done at the end of the bombing if the Iraqi leader had remained alive and and intransigent?

Saddam believes that bombing and missile strikes alone will not destabilise his rule. They were unlikely to be as heavy as the six-week bombardment in 1991. Cruise missiles are most effective for striking big fixed targets like power stations, oil refineries and bridges. This crippled the Iraqi economy eight years ago, but it would have been difficult to target the civilian population so openly today.

No doubt the Allies would have tried to attack elite Iraqi formations like the 20,000-strong Special Presidential Guard and the Republican Guard divisions. This is more difficult than it looks. Cruise missiles and smart bombs are not the best weapons against mobile units. The only effective way to attack these from the air is with low-flying fixed-wing aircraft, but this inevitably means planes shot down and pilots captured. Although it became conventional wisdom after the Gulf War to say that Iraqi anti- aircraft fire was wholly ineffective, it ensured that Allied aircraft flew high over Baghdad after the loss of two aircraft to missiles in the first three days.

The Iraqi army is much weaker today, but Iraq is not simply a military regime. This has enabled the president to hold on to power in the face of economic disaster and intense international pressure. His grip on the army is reinforced by his control of the intelligence agencies, which in the past have been run by members of his family and tribe. The ruling Baath Party is another focus of loyalty to the regime.

Saddam comes from the Bejat clan of the Albu Nasir tribe from the town of Tikrit on the Tigris, a hundred miles north of Baghdad. Several thousand "Tikritis", who know they are likely to share their leader's fate if the regime falls, fill sensitive posts in intelligence, the army and the party. But the Iraqi leader has always been a master of political reinsurance, so real experts balance loyal family members.

These interlocking systems of loyalty make it nearly impossible to stage a coup, despite deep discontent within the Iraqi army. No single commander is allowed to accumulate enough power to send his tanks rolling towards Baghdad. Most military conspiracies are crushed before they get off the ground. It is often impossible to distinguish a real coup attempt from a conspiracy concocted by government agents provocateurs trying to flush out potential traitors.

Iraq, ruined by the consequences of the Kuwait invasion, has lived under siege conditions for eight years. The US opposes lifting sanctions as long as Saddam remains in power. Although he has won tactical victories in the past three years he has, in the words of one American official, "not broken out of the box" into which the Gulf War defeat put him.

Iraq is made up of three communities which detest each other. Saddam belongs to the Sunni Muslims who comprise a fifth of the population and have traditionally ruled the country. The Kurds in the north make up another fifth, while 55 to 60 per cent are Shia Iraqis.

After the Gulf War, the US was fearful of the Shia taking power, believing this would benefit America's arch-enemy Iran, which is ruled by their co-religionists. The US also feared the Iraqi Kurds achieving independence, because it would anger Turkey, with its own Kurdish insurrection, and the Arab states.

The slight improvement in relations between the US and Iran makes the Iranian threat look less menacing to American policy-makers. In September, the US also shifted its position on the Iraqi Kurds. Massoud Barzani, leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, and Jalal al-Talabani, the head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, led a delegation to Washington and received high-level guarantees of US protection against Iraqi attack.

These US policy changes put greater pressure on Saddam Hussein, although until this weekend he appeared to believe that he could sustain even a heavy missile bombardment. Now he has changed tack again. But the US and Britain face the fear that the cease-fire agreement signed with Iraq in 1991 may be sustained only at the cost of international crises every six months.

War will solve nothing -

Samuel Francis, page 28

Suggested Topics
Susan Sarandon described David Bowie as
peopleSusan Sarandon reveals more on her David Bowie romance
sportDidier Drogba returns to Chelsea on one-year deal
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film
filmFifty Shades of Grey trailer provokes moral outrage in US
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
Louis van Gaal would have been impressed with Darren Fletcher’s performance against LA Galaxy during Manchester United’s 7-0 victory
The new dawn heralded by George Osborne has yet to rise
voicesJames Moore: As the Tories rub their hands together, the average voter will be asking why they're not getting a piece of the action
Dejan Lovren celebrates scoring for Southampton although the goal was later credited to Adam Lallana
newsComedy club forced to apologise as maggots eating a dead pigeon fall out of air-conditioning
Arts and Entertainment
Jo Brand says she's mellowed a lot
tvJo Brand says shows encourage people to laugh at the vulnerable
Life and Style
People may feel that they're procrastinating by watching TV in the evening
Rhys Williams
commonwealth games
Isis fighters travel in a vehicle as they take part in a military parade along the streets of Syria's northern Raqqa province
Arts and Entertainment
Southern charm: Nicolas Cage and Tye Sheridan in ‘Joe’
filmReview: Actor delivers astonishing performance in low budget drama
Life and Style
fashionLatex dresses hit the catwalk to raise awareness for HIV and Aids
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

    £600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

    Commercial Litigation Associate

    Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - COMMERCIAL LITIGATION - GLOBAL...

    Systems Manager - Dynamics AX

    £65000 - £75000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: The client is a...

    Service Delivery Manager (Software Development, Testing)

    £40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A well-established software house ba...

    Day In a Page

    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform