Gulf Crisis: More US aid for enemies of Saddam

Click to follow
The Independent Online
IN RESPONSE to the Iraqi crisis, President Bill Clinton has committed the United States more deeply than ever to supporting the Iraqi opposition with the aim of overthrowing President Saddam Hussein. It is a radical new direction for US policy on Iraq.

Mr Clinton claimed the US had already "deepened its engagement with the forces of change in Iraq". He said: "We will intensify that effort, working with Congress to implement the Iraq Liberation Act."

This is something of an about-turn by the White House. Mr Clinton only signed the Act, under which $97m (pounds 58m) in weapons and training will be made available to the Iraqi opposition, under duress from Republicans in Congress at the end of last month. Even then, the administration made no secret of the fact that it regarded it as a futile gesture.

Washington's experience in trying to overthrow President Saddam, since 1991, has not been happy. The CIA, in particular, has had its fingers repeatedly burnt. In 1995 it supported efforts to destabilise the Iraqi leader by pinprick guerrilla warfare from bases in Iraqi Kurdistan. Thereafter it gave backing, with equal lack of success, to efforts by Iraqi officers to stage a coup d'etat.

Critics argue that the US campaign was never entirely serious. Washington wanted President Saddam overthrown after the Gulf War, but only if he were replaced by somebody very similar. It wanted a coup, not a revolution. It did not want to do anything to benefit Iran, its other arch-enemy in the region. It had no difficulty in living with a weakened President Saddam, who posed just enough of a threat to justify the stationing of American troops in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

This policy worked well for the five years after Iraq's defeat in the Gulf War. President Saddam weathered the uprisings by the Shia and the Kurds in 1991 and the economic collapse of his country, but he was in no position to take the initiative. Gradually this changed. Attempts to get rid of him failed. In 1996 he felt strong enough to intervene in the civil war being fought in Kurdistan. His tanks captured the Kurdish capital, Arbil, before withdrawing.

The four confrontations between the US and Iraq since then have finally led Washington to decide that it cannot live with the Iraqi leader. His containment, through economic sanctions and weapons inspections, comes only at the cost of periodic crises and military mobilisations.

Effective action against Iraq requires changes in two fundamental US policies. The first is hostility to Iran, which has a long, common border with Iraq. Without its co-operation the Iraqi opposition will have difficulty getting access to its own country. The US and the Iranians have moved closer, but probably not enough for effective joint covert action.

US policy towards the Kurds would also have to change. The only organised and armed potential opponents of the Iraqi leader inside Iraq are Massoud Barzani, the leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, and Jalal al-Talabani, the head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. Both have reached a modus vivendi with Baghdad. They are unlikely to break it unless they get guarantees that the US will defend them.

The Iraqi opposition is split. It is impossible for it to operate in Iraq proper. The Iraqi National Congress, led by Ahmed Chelabi, proposes putting military pressure on Baghdad through guerrilla action to lure Iraqi military units into changing sides. It tried this strategy in Kurdistan in 1995 but says it was let down by Washington.

The Iraqi National Accord, a London-based Iraqi group, tried to foment a coup in 1996, only to see it bloodily crushed.

The failure of the INC and the INA made the US administration wary of such efforts to overthrow the Iraqi leader. It has resisted pressure from Congress to aid the INC. Senate Republican leader, Trent Lott, forced through through the Iraq Liberation Act, in the teeth of opposition from the executive.

The fact that Mr Clinton mentioned the Act favourably in his speech shows that he does not have his own policy to deal with President Saddam, other than to maintain the ceasefire terms imposed on Iraq in 1991. He has therefore taken over Republican policy, which is to repeat the CIA's successful support of Afghan rebels who opposed the pro-Soviet Kabul regime in the Eighties.

It is unclear how far the White House has thought this through. A member of the Iraqi opposition recently in Washington was struck "by the vacuum of policy".

It may be that US support for the Iraqi opposition will increase simply because nobody knows what else to do about President Saddam.