Time May Be Arch-Foe in Struggle With Iraq
By Daniel Williams
AMMAN, Jordan, Dec. 21 The U.S. determination to spark a revolt against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein by piling military action atop economic sanctions takes place at a time of little viable opposition to his government inside Iraq and increased opposition to the war on Baghdad from key governments.
Clinton administration strategists indicated that last week's four-day bombing campaign and possible future action are designed in part to embolden rebels and open the way for a coup against the Iraqi president. But assessments of the recent past and foreseeable future suggest that the United States is in a race against time.
Can bombing bear fruit before the international diplomatic scaffolding collapses beneath the policies of sanctions, containment and punishment? Besides opposing the attacks, Russia, France, China and many Arab governments are pressing for the lifting of the U.N. economic embargo.
"There is a risk that short-term difficulties will get in the way of what is clearly going to be a long-term process," said a Western diplomat here.
The chances of a popular revolt in Iraq soon appear slim, Western diplomats and Arab observers say. Although opposition to Baghdad's rule is widespread in parts of the country, particularly in the south, "there is no perceptible groundswell of resistance," said a Western diplomat. "Touching off a rebellion will be tough. It's not likely to be quick."
Armed resistance to Saddam Hussein has simmered in a marshy area near the city of Basra in Iraq's far south. Visitors say that in recent months, rebels burned some buildings belonging to the Baath party, the political arm of the government, and occasional shootouts have occurred in southern cities. Travel at night is considered risky for government troops and officials.
Nevertheless, said a Western diplomat who described the tense southern scene: "Widespread anti-Saddam action has not taken place."
The largely Shiite Muslim south is a well of dissatisfaction with the Iraqi government. Iraqi Shiites, the country's impoverished underdogs, have long been marginalized by the Baghdad-centered Sunni Muslim population that forms the core of support for Saddam Hussein's government.
After the expulsion of Iraqi troops from Kuwait during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, President George Bush encouraged Shiites to revolt. They did, but Washington shied away from supporting them, and Iraqi troops crushed the uprising.
"Memories of that disaster are strong. No one is going to show their heads just because of a short bombing campaign," said Radwan Abdullah, a Jordanian political scientist.
Baghdad keeps a tight, brutal grip on the south. Last month in the city of Karbala, someone tossed two grenades at Izzat Ibrahim, a longtime deputy to Saddam Hussein. Ibrahim survived unharmed. Observers were divided over whether the attack was an authentic assassination attempt or an elaborate ruse designed to justify a major crackdown. In any event, government agents soon launched a crackdown in Karbala and rounded up "saboteurs and agents," according to an Iraqi government newspaper.
During last week's aerial campaign, opposition groups outside Iraq sat on the sidelines. President Clinton has yet to disburse $95 million that Congress earmarked to train and arm the badly splintered resistance groups. Current resistance to Saddam Hussein is carried out by "bubbles" of independent groups acting without coordination, said Dhirgham Kadhim, an official of the Iraqi National Accord, one of the exiled opposition organizations.
"We are still waiting for implementation of the aid program," he said.
A Western diplomat said several factors are complicating the creation of a viable external opposition: No attractive leader has emerged to rally support inside Iraq and no rear-guard base has been established, either in neighboring countries or within Iraq, with the goal of launching a military drive.
"The opposition in exile is a ragtag group," said a third Western diplomat.
A key target of the Anglo-American bombing campaign was the Republican Guard, some of whose units provide security for Saddam Hussein's inner circle. U.S. strategists hope to rupture the government's dam of protection against popular dissent and disgruntled commanders of other military units.
Military plots against Saddam Hussein from within his army have taken place periodically. He put them all down. He employs overlapping domestic intelligence agencies and maintains a web of spies inside military units to discourage plots. "Who would a potential coup leader communicate with to hatch a revolt? Who could be trusted? Saddam's intelligence network is all-encompassing," said a Western observer.
Besides using fear, Saddam Hussein is careful to reward loyalty within key components of his elaborate security apparatus. The closer his defenders are to the center of power, the more likely they are to consist of troops from Saddam's home town, Tikrit. The Special Republican Guard, units most directly responsible for defending the government, are under the control of one of Saddam's sons, Qusay. These units are also the most highly rewarded with pay, housing, cars and rations. Income from the sale of smuggled oil provides money to maintain the loyalists, Jordanian analysts and diplomats say.
Saddam recently took pains to show that assassination is an empty option. Early this month, he attended a rally to celebrate the survival of his elder son, Uday, wounded in an assassination attempt two years ago. "Saddam likes to remind everyone that despite everything, he and his cohorts are still in charge," said a Jordanian official.
Outside Iraq, the United States is finding fewer and fewer fans of its Iraq policy. The alliance of Arab, Western and other states that fought Iraq during the Persian Gulf War has decomposed considerably during Clinton's six years in office.
Among Arab allies, angry street demonstrations prompted governments to oppose the bombing. After the third day of airstrikes, Egypt's president Hosni Mubarak demanded an immediate end to the operation. Jordan renewed its call for the lifting of economic sanctions. Even Washington-friendly Morocco witnessed a demonstration of thousands of students in its capital, Rabat.
Protesters in Syria stormed U.S. and British diplomatic compounds in Damascus, and rioters routed the wife of the U.S. ambassador from the couple's residence. No one here thinks that the unrest in Syria could have gotten off the ground without President Hafez Assad's agreement to allow the protests. Syria has become far more preoccupied with a budding alliance between Israel and Turkey than with any danger posed by Iraq, analysts say.
Continual warnings about Iraq's threat to its neighbors seemed to wear thin among Arabs as they watched U.S. and British bombs fall on and around the Iraqi capital with impunity. Airstrikes "failed to weaken Saddam Hussein internally and increased his popularity among Arabs," wrote Al-Watan newspaper in Oman. Some Arab newspapers began to call for retaliation against the United States and Great Britain. "Strike American interests," demanded Al-Arabi weekly in Egypt. Such threats were taken seriously by the State Department. Even in peaceable Jordan, new concrete-and-metal barriers were put up at the fortress-like U.S. Embassy here. A new travel warning was issued for Syria. The harsh U.S. stand against Iraq was compared unfavorably to Washington's cautious treatment of Israel's prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, who stiff-armed Clinton's efforts to induce new Israeli troop withdrawals from the West Bank under the Oslo and Wye River peace accords. "After what Netanyahu has done, the attacks on Iraq look all the more overbearing," said Taher Masri, a former Jordanian prime minister.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company