As of last autumn at the latest, and possibly much earlier, the administration appears to have been mounting a covert operation to finish the job left undone two years ago when President Saddam survived the six-week war that pushed his forces out of Kuwait. According to Western diplomats, America's allies stumbled on the plan towards the end of last year. They gave no details, only noting that it had no set time-
Previous schemes to unseat Saddam foundered because US intelligence planners were pinning their hopes on pre- planned coup attempts within the Iraqi military, all of which were uncovered by Iraqi security services. A series of executions of senior military officers have been carried out in the wake of such coup attempts.
This time, the Americans appear to have waited for Saddam to put his head in the noose by challenging the conditions of the 1991 ceasefire. The administration has chosen to highlight relatively mild ceasefire violations - such as unarmed incursions into the demilitarised border zone - which had earlier gone unchallenged. The escalation of US and allied warnings in recent weeks was less a reflection of mounting concern that Saddam presented a new threat to Western interests than a clue to the fact that the US campaign of destabilisation was ready to roll.
Which leaves open the question: what happens next? It is unlikely that US intelligence will have left Stage Two to chance. It has had two years in which to plug the gaps which led to the West being caught wrong- footed by the invasion of Kuwait in August 1990. If the Americans have prepared the ground internally, there may be no need for further military action to press ahead with the plan to topple Saddam.
The other unknown factor is how Saddam and his inner circle will react. He has survived in the past by backing away from confrontation, the single exception being his near-fatal decision to call the coalition partners' bluff in January 1991.
Militarily, Iraq is a shadow of its pre-war self and Baghdad's control does not even extend to the whole of its territory. The Americans also appear less fearful than in February 1991 of the power vacuum that might follow the dictator's fall. Whereas in 1991 the removal of Saddam was not part of America's strategy, now it clearly is.
The regional balance of power has also changed; the United States is no longer obliged to seek an Arab consensus and there is less paranoia in Washington about the break-up of Iraq into Kurdish, Sunni and Shia mini-states. The Americans may even be leaning towards the concept of a federal Iraq proposed last year by the Kurds controlling the north of the country.
Two years ago, warning voices in Saudi Arabia, Turkey and elsewhere in the region advised the Americans that a weakened but united Iraq ruled by Saddam was preferable to the potentially unstable alternative. The consensus now appears to be that his survival is more trouble than it is worth.Reuse content