Features

Saddam strikes back

International | With U.S. airstrikes failing to achieve their ultimate goal, Iraq's dictator strengthens his stranglehold

Issue: "End of the innocence," Jan. 30, 1999

In the cloistered chambers of the United Nations, a carefully crafted, multinational strategy against Saddam Hussein has begun to disintegrate. Security Council members Russia and France are floating plans to shut down UNSCOM, the UN agency set up to disarm Iraq, following reports that it had become a pawn of the United States.

Even the United States has begun wavering on its own position, proposing two weeks ago to lift a ceiling on the amount of oil Iraq can sell in exchange for humanitarian supplies.

To be sure, international pressure on Iraq was already fraying at the seams, but it was not until after mid-December air strikes by the United States that things really began to unravel.

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Critics of the UN's empty rhetoric and loophole-laden sanctions may welcome the end of internationalism. But few imagined that when the policy of containment finally hit the dustbin, it would be America that was left looking dirty. In the Gulf, as elsewhere, Washington's credibility is at an all-time low.

Reports appearing in U.S. intelligence-related publications and Arab newspapers say the goal of Operation Desert Fox was more than just destroying Iraq's ability to produce chemical and biological weapons. They contend that the attacks launched by the United States and Great Britain on Dec. 14 were intended to provide air cover for a coup attempt against Saddam Hussein.

The reports cite key officers close to Mr. Hussein who apparently were ready to lead a coordinated revolt. Troop movements along the Kuwaiti border at the time of the air strikes signified that ground forces were readying to support an uprising. And reports of sabotage throughout the Shiite areas of southern Iraq, a traditional seat of opposition to Mr. Hussein, were also plentiful during four days of U.S. bombing. One Arab paper said Iraqi opposition forces moved against the state radio and television building in Baghdad Dec. 19, but failed to take over.

The attacks also coincided with an increasing courtship between Washington and opposition leader Sharif Ali bin AlHussein, head of Iraq's Constitutional Monarchy Movement. Sharif Ali, who was in the United States during Operation Desert Fox, met with congressional leaders and officials from the State Department and Pentagon.

According to the Global Intelligence Update, Mr. Hussein's discovery of the plan allowed him to take steps to thwart it only hours before air strikes commenced. In a Dec. 16 presidential decree, Mr. Hussein dramatically rearranged key military posts and shifted his command structure in southern Iraq. A series of high-level executions after the air strikes began also suggests the Iraqi leader was onto something.

At least two officers from army units stationed in the south were ordered executed by a Ba'ath Party regional commander appointed in the presidential decree. Clashes in a Baghdad army camp led to the execution of five more officers Dec. 18. Another group was executed, according to the opposition Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, for objecting to "measures taken in preparation for suppressing a people's movement." Iraq's Communist Party, another cell of opposition, told Agence France Press two colonels close to Mr. Hussein were executed in their Baghdad barracks Dec. 19.

Whether out of sheer coincidence, brazenness, or foreboding, defense planners named Operation Desert Fox appropriately. It was the "Desert Fox" of World War II, Nazi Gen. Erwin Rommel, who was implicated in a plot against Adolf Hitler and executed.

If inside opposition has been silenced, then-despite the damage of December's bombings-Mr. Hussein may be stronger than ever.

"U.S. strikes do nothing to improve the American position in this region," asserts Douglas Layton, who heads a research and development organization with work among Kurds in northern Iraq. "In the Arab mind, the conclusion is: 'Saddam survived again.' Even if they don't support him necessarily, it raises a kind of respect for him."

The aftermath also leaves the frayed opposition at risk. Mr. Layton believes the confrontations between American and Iraqi jets over northern Iraq in recent weeks have more to do with squelching future coup attempts than with testing the no-fly zone.

"If Saddam believes America is running the no-fly zone to protect people inside, then it puts Kurds and whoever else he suspects in danger, moreso if he thinks we are protecting ground forces allied against him," he said.

Mr. Layton believes the Iraqi dictator may try to crush Kurdish opposition as he did during the Iran-Iraq war in 1988, when he used chemical weapons to kill thousands of Kurds in the northern region.

The political fallout also affects a fledgling evangelical movement among the Kurds. The movement is supported by churches in the United States, and anyone with apparent connections to America is automatically suspect. Suspicion, in turn, is a convenient excuse for a long-standing policy of persecution against Christian minorities: A Christian bookstore in the region was bombed and destroyed on Dec. 31, and two other bombs were detonated in early January-one murdering a Christian mother and son in Erbil, and another nearly killing a clergyman and his son in the same city.

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