CIA blamed for Saddam's survival

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AS THE US heads into another confrontation with Iraq, a furious row has broken out in Washington over the role of the Central Intelligence Agency in repeated attempts, since the end of the Gulf War, to overthrow Saddam Hussein.

At the centre of the dispute is Steve Richter, chief of the Middle East division of the CIA's directorate of operations, who is accused of supporting unsuccessful attempts to instigate military coups in Baghdad, instead of backing revolutionary or guerrilla movements.

Richard Perle, a former assistant defence secretary and right wing protagonist during the Cold War, said last month that Mr Richter's leadership over the last four-and-a-half years had "adversely affected our effort to adequately handle Saddam Hussein."

Mr Perle's attack, an almost unheard of criticism of a mid-level CIA employee, carries weight because he is a powerful influence among Republican Senators. One commentator said: "He is effectively the foreign minister of [Senate Majority leader] Trent Lott ."

"Steven Richter has an unbroken record of failure," Mr Perle told the American Institute last month.

"The head of the [Middle East] division at the CIA should be removed on the grounds of incompetence and a lack of the fundamental qualifications to hold that position.

"The Director of Central Intelligence should explain why he's been there all this time, despite a record of one failure after another."

The verbal assault by Mr Perle is an escalation in the simmering row between the Republicans in Congress and the White House over Washington's policy toward Iraq.

Critics of the CIA say it cannot break out of its traditional role in the 1950s, when it was easy to organise a military coup in the Arab world. They say that "the resources available for keeping power in any Arab country, particularly Iraq, are now too great for any conspiracy to succeed."

Since the end of the Gulf war in 1991, the CIA had looked to the Iraqi officer corps to replace President Saddam but its efforts so far have been uniformly unsuccessful.

In 1996 it backed an Iraqi opposition organisation called the Iraqi National Accord to organise a coup, which was bloodily crushed by Iraqi security.

Before 1995 the CIA has aided the Iraqi National Congress, an umbrella group for the opposition, which believed in putting pressure on President Saddam by a military campaign based in Kurdistan. When Iraqi forces took Arbil, the Kurdish capital, in 1996 President Saddam had over 100 INC members, who had been captured by his troops, executed.

At the end of last month, President Bill Clinton unwillingly signed the Iraqi Liberation Act, under which he is to make $97m-worth of military equipment and training available to the Iraqi opposition.

The INC had been highly successful in lobbying Congress to adopt its policy of armed popular resistance, as opposed to the CIA's more conspiratorial approach.

Mr Perle is quoted as saying: "Saddam is a lot better at resisting coups than we are at perpetrating them."

Critics of the INC's commitment to armed resistance say it would reduce Iraq to a state of anarchy, like Afghanistan or Lebanon in the 1980s, Dr Ahmed Chelabi, leader of the INC, says: "What's so wrong with Lebanon. Life there now is a lot better than in Iraq."

If there is foreign-backed guerrilla warfare then it would be launched in the south and west of Iraq, which would need backing from Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait or Iran.

The Republican assault on the administration's Iraq policy was boosted by the resignation of Scott Ritter, the chief UN weapons inspector, who resigned soon after the latest stand-off began in August.

He says that the administration has deliberately pulled its punches in reigning in the inspectors early this year.

This is denied by Madeleine Albright, the Secretary of State.

Mr Perle, notorious for his manipulative skills in Washington, also called for a select committee of Congress to investigate the activities of the CIA and other government insitutions in the Middle East.

He said: "This investigation should include an effort to reconsider the competing claims of Scott Ritter and the Secretary of State."

The attack on Mr Richter is in effect a criticism of George Tenet, the CIA director, and his senior aides, all of whom were involved in the attempts to overthrow President Saddam. The problem for the agency stems from the priority given by the US government to overthrowing the Iraqi leader only if the political status quo in Iraq is largely preserved.

In the past this has meant that Washington has refused to support Iraqi Kurdish demands for self-determination. It has also feared that any revolt byIraq's Shia Muslims would lead to an increase in Iranian, fundamentalist, influence.