US dreams of ways to get rid of Saddam

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The Independent Online
THERE were several hundred of them and they were terrified. They were soldiers and civilians belonging to the CIA-backed Iraqi National Congress, the umbrella group for the Iraqi opposition, and they were preparing to run for their lives after 120 members of their organisation were slaughtered when Saddam Hussein launched a surprise attack into the previously safe haven of Kurdistan 18 months ago.

I did not quite realise I was watching the debacle of the most ambitious and ultimately disastrous attempt to overthrow the Iraqi leader. It involved the CIA and other foreign intelligence services trying to use Kurdistan to launch a resistance war against Baghdad while supporting a military conspiracy against Saddam Hussein. Both failed dismally with the death of at least 300 Iraqis involved.

Now it may happen again. From all over the US Congress come voices calling for Bill Clinton to try to oust the Iraqi government. Senator Bob Kerrey, vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, says: "I would first of all speak to the 22 million Iraqis who have been terrorised by this dictator and say: `We are going to liberate you.'" Senator John McCain, a Republican on the Armed Services Committee, said: "I would say it's our goal to remove him from power because, as long as he's there, we're facing this enormous challenge."

Few of the bellicose Senators who want to oust Saddam Hussein seem aware the US made a big effort to do just that in 1994-96 with disastrous results. It is a superficially attractive idea. Somehow the belief has never died in the West that the Arab world sees frequent military coups. But the era of successful military conspiracies was the Fifties and Sixties. In the last quarter-century few have succeeded. Security services are too pervasive. Military elites are too comfortable or frightened to take the risk.

This is true above all of Iraq. If there is one political art Saddam Hussein has mastered it is his own survival. A savage system of tribal checks and balances prevents anybody accumulating enough power to launch a successful conspiracy. Almost all have been crushed before a single tank rolled.

The outcome of the latest crisis makes it far more difficult for any foreign backed resistance to get off the ground. The Iraqis and the Arabs see the agreement brokered by the UN as a victory for Saddam. They believe it is a sign US resolve to overthrow him is full of doubts. For instance, the US has always made it clear it wants a coup, not an insurrection. It does not want Iraq to break up.

The CIA knew the difficulty of their task when President Bush first directed them to get rid of the Iraqi regime. But with Iraq having replaced the Soviet Union as the Americans' chief demon the agency was in no position to say no. Its failure to accomplish anything attracted little publicity in the US.

There is a measure of absurdity in the projects put forward in Washington. Paul Wolfowitz, former senior State Department official, says mutinous detachments of the Iraqi army should be invited to march to safe havens in Kurdistan or the marshes of southern Iraq. In fact, the Kurdish mountains have been unsafe for Saddam's opponents ever since the INC were slaughtered or fled in 1996. There never were safe havens in the south. All defecting Iraqi soldiers would find is a few guerrilla bands fighting to survive in the swamps.