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 All UN personnel were withdrawn from Iraq at American insistence last week and the US immediately turned to the military option.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
Life and Style
The Google Doodle celebrating the start of the first day of autumn, 2014.
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Ed Stoppard as her manager Brian Epstein
tvCilla Episode 2 review: Grit under the glamour in part two of biopic series starring Sheridan Smith
David Moyes and Louis van Gaal
Former Governor of Alaska Sarah Palin, left, with her daughter, Bristol
newsShe's 'proud' of eldest daughter, who 'punched host in the face'
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
New Zealand fly-half Aaron Cruden pictured in The Zookeeper's Son on a late-night drinking session
A cabin crew member photographed the devastation after one flight
Life and Style
Carol O'Brien, whose son Rob suffered many years of depression
healthOne mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of Dark Side of the Moon
musicCan 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition? See for yourself
Life and Style
food + drink
Life and Style
Vote with your wallet: the app can help shoppers feel more informed about items on sale
lifeNew app reveals political leanings of food companies
Rob Merrick's Lobby Journalists were playing Ed Balls' Labour Party MPs. The match is an annual event which takes place ahead of the opening of the party conference
newsRob Merrick insistes 'Ed will be hurting much more than me'
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
voicesMaybe the new app will make it more normal to reach out to strangers
Liam Payne has attacked the media for reporting his tweet of support to Willie Robertson and the subsequent backlash from fans
peopleBut One Direction star insists he is not homophobic
Life and Style
healthFor Pure-O OCD sufferers this is a reality they live in
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

    Pharmaceutical Computer System Validation Specialist

    £300 - £350 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Pharmaceutical Computer ...

    High Level Teaching Assistant (HTLA)

    £70 - £90 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Higher Level Teaching Assist...

    Teaching Assistant

    £50 - £80 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Randstad Education is the UK...

    Senior Java Developer - API's / Webservices - XML, XSLT

    £400 - £450 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is currently ...

    Day In a Page

    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments