Opposition tries to unite against Saddam regime

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The Independent Online
THE DECISION by the main western Gulf war coalition partners to extend an air exclusion zone to southern Iraq raises a serious political problem: how to weaken Saddam Hussein's authority without fragmenting the country. The same old questions remain unanswered. How can Saddam be removed? Who would take over from him? And what would be the shape of post-Saddam Iraq?

Throughout the Gulf war, the political aim of the military operations was to damage the Iraqi military so severely that some disaffected senior officers would remove President Saddam. Then the strategy underestimated the control Mr Saddam exercised over his own men through his regime of fear. It will be a test of the current measures to assess whether the approach now will have any greater success.

The air exclusion zone will not greatly reduce Iraq's campaign against the Shia rebels. Dissident sources insist that Iraqi aircraft have continued attacks on the southern marshes, but the Pentagon says there have been no attacks by fixed-wing aircraft since 23 July.

The aim of the no-fly area is to allow Iraqi soldiers on the ground to defect without fear of being harried by Iraqi helicopter gunships, according to Ahmed Chalabi, a member of the Iraqi National Congress in exile. He said that 'army units would be protected from this screen of fear and instant retribution. As army morale becomes low, commanders will be more ready to come over'.

He also said that he had evidence that senior officers were ready to defect. 'We are in contact with army officers and commanders who are ready to come over with their units. They were afraid in the past because he (President Saddam) is in a very advantageous position with his air mobility and firepower.'

Dr Chelabi was one of six Iraqi opposition leaders who went to Washington last month and met James Baker, then US Secretary of State, and Brent Scowcroft, the national security adviser. There were two Kurds, two Sunnis and two Shias. That it took so long for the US administration to meet them underlines the low regard they have been held in Washington, as divided and with little real influence inside Iraq.

Another of the group, Laith Qubba, a Shia intellectual, insisted they had not asked for Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, as had the mujahedin in Afghanistan. 'There are already enough arms in Iraq,' he said. 'The importance is neutralising Saddam's army and challenging the authority of Saddam which could lead to a change of government in a bloodless way.'

Mr Baker said the US was committed to the territorial integrity of Iraq, and was opposed to any break-up of the country. The view is shared by all the Arab states in the Arabian peninsula. They oppose any policy which would break up the country into a Kurdish north, Sunni centre and Shia south. One fear is that of setting precedents for establishing mini-states based on confessional identity or ethnicity elsewhere in the Arab world. More pressingly, the Saudis are worried that a weakened Iraq would no longer serve as a bulwark against the greater threat of a militant and increasingly powerful Iran.

Iraq, like Syria, is run by a confessional minority whose political cover is the unifying ideology of Arab nationalist Baathism. The Sunni Arabs, less that a quarter of the 18 million population, control most of the key posts and the centres of power. All the opposition groups insist they are committed to maintaining the unity of the state. But no single rallying figure has emerged.