Iraq crisis: So, just how much of a war would you like, Mr President?

Pentagon hawks are circling the White House. Patrick Cockburn on the tensions at the top
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DEEP divisions are opening between the White House and the Pentagon on the type of air offensive to be waged against Baghdad. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair are making clear that they want it directed primarily at Iraqi "weapons of mass destruction" and the means to deliver them. But the Joint Chiefs of Staff want something far more devastating and wide- ranging. "This is turning into a political, not a military option," a senior military official in Washington was quoted as complaining.

The dispute centres on the type of target to be attacked, but is really about US policy objectives in Iraq. Once again, as so often in the 20th century, the US Air Force is promising results that politicians suspect are exaggerated and will involve heavy civilian casualties. The Pentagon is frustrated to see its plans for a wider war vetoed by the White House national-security staff under Bob Bell, who are cautiously picking the targets, say US sources.

The Pentagon is clear what it would like to go after: almost everything. It would try to hit the Iraq leadership, including Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi army as a whole, and security and command-and-control centres. The White House has more limited plans: prime targets will be known and suspected weapons facilities, air defences, presidential palaces, and the special Republican Guard division - a unit of 20,000 men - which is in charge of concealing strategic weapons.

Publicly the maximalist position is stated by Trent Lott, the Senate majority leader: "Take out the palace guard. Take out the palaces. Take out every target and hope that you can put a missile down in an event or a building where Saddam Hussein is." He concluded: "Until we get him out of Iraq, we're never going to get this situation under control."

This belligerent advice does expose one vital problem. What if the bombing and missile offensive takes place but the Iraqi leader still refuses to allow inspections to take place? Will bombing go on or ground troops be introduced? Recent examples in the Middle East are not comforting for proponents of air power. US helicopter gunships in Somalia in 1993 and Israeli artillery and air strikes in southern Lebanon in 1996 both failed to achieve their political objectives.

The aim of air strikes in Iraq is to force President Saddam to allow UN inspectors to look for his unconventional weapons. This can only be done with his co-operation. The Unscom inspection teams can only enter Iraqi facilities if accompanied by Iraqi "minders". The rain of missiles and bombs will therefore aim at forcing the Iraqi leader to make a policy change.

The real problem is that the invasion of sovereignty, the type of licensed espionage (including entry into all Iraqi prisons) that Washington and London are demanding of Baghdad, would be accepted by no country except under the direct threat of invasion. This is what happened in 1991 at the end of the Gulf War. But even Senator Lott is not proposing a ground war, and without one Saddam will ultimately eject or marginalise the inspectors.

In 1919, France and Britain forced Germany at Versailles to accept the reduction of its army to 100,000 men and the abolition of its general staff as well as tanks, heavy artillery and poison gas. Time passed, and the Germans evaded these restrictions. They understood that neither Paris nor London was prepared to go back to war to enforce the Versailles Treaty. Much the same is true in Iraq in 1998. The Iraqi leader is in a stronger position domestically than he has been for years.

Inspectors are not the only means by which Iraq's sovereignty is limited. There are also two "no-fly zones" in the north and south of Iraq. They were intended to limit Saddam's ability to control the Kurds and Shia respectively. Both have failed. He never lost control of the south and he is increasingly dominant in northern Iraq.

Baghdad believes it should retain a small arsenal of unconventional weapons. In 1995 missile guidance gyroscopes stripped from Russian missiles were discovered by accident in Amman, en route to Iraq. In the same year, General Hussein Kamel, the son-in-law of the Iraqi leader, defected, and Baghdad was forced to reveal fresh details of biological and chemical warfare programmes.

But the Iraqi charge that the US sees Unscom as a chief instrument in isolating Iraq is also true. In one of her earliest speeches as Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright made clear that sanctions would not be lifted as long as Saddam was in power. This removed any incentive for him to co-operate with the inspectors.

President Clinton can see the dangers of giving the military their head. In an air offensive the first day is usually the best: the targets that are easest to hit are destroyed. The most effective use of air power is to destroy the civilian infrastructure - power stations and refineries - but this would erode political support in the Arab world.

No wonder the US and Britain are straining so hard to work out a diplomatic agreement allowing the inspectors to get to work. They might still get one, but this does not alter the real difficulty. Whatever Saddam agrees to now under pressure could be reversed in a few months' time.

Mr Clinton and the White House may be inhibited by another factor. Even supposing they got rid of Saddam, who would replace him? The past seven years have been good for the US in the Middle East, and a weak Iraq is ideal for Washington. It is not that the US covertly wants to keep Saddam in power - as many Iraqis suspect - but that they want him replaced by somebody almost exactly like him. They do not want to break up the Iraqi army, because they see it as an instrument of conservative change.

Above all, Washington wants to conserve the Middle East as it is, and some, at least, in the White House realise that to start an all-out air war would be a very radical act, the outcome of which nobody can foresee.