Survival is his greatest skill: A further allied clash with Saddam Hussein was always a risk. Lawrence Freedman explains why

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As President Bush authorised his valedictory strike against his old enemy, Saddam Hussein, he must have wondered how the Iraqi leader managed to survive such a comprehensive defeat two years ago. When Mr Bush concluded the land war after '100 hours', he was assuming that the Iraqi army no longer existed as an effective fighting force, and heeding the beginnings of international discomfort after his pilots' talk of a 'turkey shoot' as allied planes strafed retreating Iraqi convoys.

It is often supposed that if only the Gulf war had lasted another day, President Saddam would no longer be in power. In fact he had kept back forces to look after his security in the event of a military defeat. He would probably have had sufficient forces to cope with the uprising even if the war had lasted a little longer.

The allies had never planned to go to Baghdad - for very practical reasons. They anticipated that Iraqi soldiers would fight to protect their own territory with greater resolve than they had shown in fighting for Kuwait, and that once Baghdad was taken it would be no easy matter to find President Saddam. Memories were still fresh of the farcical chase around Panama City in search of Manuel Noriega a year earlier.

More seriously, the allies were reluctant to take responsibility for running Iraq, and very sensitive to charges of neo-colonialism. The Arab members of the coalition, other than Syria, could not agree publicly to the occupation of Iraq; nor could Mikhail Gorbachev, whose support had been critical to ensuring the smooth passage of Gulf-related resolutions through the United Nations Security Council.

There was one further reason why the overthrow of Saddam was not made an explicit objective - a reason that was not made public at the time. When James Baker met Tariq Aziz in Geneva just before the start of the war he made a very explicit threat: 'If the conflict starts, God forbid, and chemical or biological weapons are used against our forces, the American people would demand revenge, and we have the means to implement this. This is not a threat, but a pledge that if there is any use of such weapons, our objective would not be only the liberation of Kuwait, but also the toppling of the present regime . . .'

The deterrent effect may have worked, but the corollary was that if these weapons were not used, the regime would not be toppled.

Each time the issue was raised, coalition leaders insisted that their objectives were confined to ending the occupation of Kuwait and reducing Iraq's capacity to threaten its neighbours, especially with weapons of mass destruction. They went out of their way to insist there was no hidden agenda to 'get Saddam'. When pressed, US - and British - politicians used the formula adopted by John Major: 'He is a man without pity and, whatever his fate may be, I for one will not weep for him.'

The presumption was that no leader, especially one from a culture with a low toleration of humiliation, could long survive such a catastrophic defeat. When the 'mother of battles' had turned into such a rout, was it not inevitable that he would be dealt with in a traditional Iraqi manner, allowing a new leader to emerge to pick up the pieces?

What the Western planners failed to reckon with was the insurrection among the Shias in the south and the Kurds in the north. For a while the Iraqi regime was rocked. This - rather than the premature ceasefire - was the point at which the US administration lost its nerve.

The prospect of Saddam getting his comeuppance was tempered by fears that the Shia mullahs leading the rebellion in the south could turn out to be remarkably like their Iranian counterparts and introduce a fundamentalist regime, while a breakaway Kurdish state to the north would alarm all those with their own Kurdish problems (notably the Turks).

Even though the Iraqi opposition had moderated its programme in an attempt to allay these fears, Mr Bush none the less feared the break-up of the Iraqi state. Two of his objectives had been to prevent such a break-up and to avoid entanglement in somebody else's civil war, lest the US find itself with an indefinite military commitment in a highly complex political situation.

President Saddam agreed to everything asked of him in the ceasefire negotiations. He needed to keep his external enemies off his back while meeting the challenge of insurrection. General Norman Schwarzkopf later complained that he had been 'suckered' in these negotiations when he agreed to allow Iraq to use helicopters for transport purposes on the apparently reasonable grounds that the allies had destroyed many bridges and roads. Helicopter gunships were then used by the Iraqis against the rebels.

The allies could have challenged the use of the gunships, because it certainly violated the spirit of the ceasefire. By then, however, the US administration had said outright, after a White House meeting on 26 March 1991, that it would not support the rebels. For as long as the US position had been ambiguous, President Saddam was inhibited. Once he knew there would be no outside interference, he turned on the Kurds and Shias with ferocity.

The insurrection may have saved President Saddam. It provided a rallying point for the Sunni minority upon whom his power was based, and reminded any potential conspirators among the elite that they were implicated in the regime's misdeeds and would be vulnerable if it were overthrown. Nor would they necessarily have rated their chances very high: President Saddam is a man who sees a conspiracy coming and acts accordingly.

In the end even the Americans were persuaded that some protection should be afforded the Kurds - through the 'safe havens' - lest they suffer annihilation. More recently - by means of the 'no-fly zone' - they have sought to protect the Shias from a murderous campaign. President Saddam never quite established internal control - but Mr Bush never quite cut him down to size. That is what made yesterday's strike inevitable.

Lawrence Freedman is the co-author, with Efraim Karsh, of 'The Gulf Conflict 1990-1991: Diplomacy and War in the New World Order', published by Faber on 18 January at pounds 20.

(Photograph omitted)