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As Iraqi Turmoil Continues, US Goals Uncertain


FOR the United States, war in the Persian Gulf was brutally simple. Peace is turning out to be more complex than anticipated. More than a month after President Bush called a halt to the rapid advance of coalition ground forces, a formal cease-fire has yet to be signed. US units grow more restless by the day as they sit and wait in southern Iraq.

Meanwhile, US goals for what happens next remain somewhat contradictory. Bush and other coalition leaders have long said they don't want Iraq to splinter through civil war. No help has been offered Iraqi Kurdish or Shiite rebel groups, as US analysts don't believe they are capable of running the whole country. ``Why get into that morass?'' says one Pentagon official bluntly.

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Yet while they stand by, US officials confidently predict Saddam Hussein's fall from power. The attitude seems to be that once the Iraqi military stamps out rebellion, it will turn on Saddam. ``With this much turmoil, it seems to me unlikely he will survive,'' Mr. Bush said Wednesday.

As of this writing the situation inside Iraq continued to be uncertain. In the north, Iraqi government forces were massing to attack Kurdish rebels holding the city of Kirkuk, according to the State Department. Though there were indications Saddam's troops were making progress in their battle against Shiite groups in the south, clashes were continuing near Basra and along the lower Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler charged Wednesday that Iraq was making ``frequent'' use of heavy artillery, rocket launchers, and helicopter gunships against civilian populations in rebellious areas. Unstated was the growing realization that much of this equipment was caught in the trap of the allied ground attack, yet allowed to slip away at the end of the war.

Contrary to initial reports of the complete destruction of Iraqi forces in Kuwait, US analysts now believe at least 700 Iraqi tanks and 1,400 armored personnel carriers escaped. ``They're using forces against the Kurds that they got out of Basra,'' says a knowledgeable Pentagon official.

Whether Saddam would have been quickly toppled if these weapons weren't available will never be known. Central Command chief Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf said in a TV interview that he recommended coalition forces pursue and pound the fleeing Iraqi army, rather than halt the ground war after 100 hours. Both Bush and Defense Secretary Dick Cheney denied the implication that there had been any disagreement on whether to end the allied offensive.

US forces were giving some indirect help to Iraqi insurgents by refusing to allow the Iraqi Air Force to fly fixed-wing aircraft. But there was no coalition move to stop the flight of helicopter gunships, despite US statements that movement of these aircraft was also banned by terms of the temporary cease-fire agreement.

One big reason for US non-intervention in Iraq may be that coalition allies oppose it. The idea of a Shiite Iraq, or even greater Shiite autonomy in southern Iraq, gives the Sunni Muslim-dominated Saudi Arabian government pause. Now that Kuwait has been liberated, the Saudis have been making surprisingly conciliatory sounds about Saddam's continuation in power, according to a senior administration official.

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NATO member Turkey is likewise nervous about the Iraqi Kurdish rebellion in the north. Success there could only feed unrest among Turkey's own Kurdish minority.

Neither of these groups is seen as strong enough to hold Iraq together. If the US intervened on the side of rebels, it might have to overtly prop up the resulting regime. The alternative might be an Iraq split into constituent regions, creating a dangerous and unstable power vacuum.

Outside intervention thus can't really succeed in keeping Iraq together, argues Boston University professor Hermann Eilts, a former US envoy to Saudi Arabia. ``The only way to keep Iraq together is from the inside,'' he says.

Not all analysts agree. Harvard University Middle East expert Laurie Mylroie believes that if Iraq splits into three parts - a Kurdish north, a Shiite south, and a Baghdad-dominated middle - the country won't necessarily be dissolved. These three regions ``could form the basis for a new federal system - which could succeed if it had the support of the international community,'' she writes in an analysis.

And there is a moral component to the question. Both the Kurds and the Shiites have long-standing grievances against Saddam and his Ba'ath Party, and needed little encouragement to rise. But, having weakened Saddam and encouraged his enemies, can the US now sit by while he recovers and deals with them? Is an opportunity being missed to deal with moderate Iraqi elements, in both the exile and Shiite communities?

``It is not politically wise or morally acceptable to leave Iraq in a permanent chaotic state,'' says Charles Winslow, a University of Indiana Middle East scholar.

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