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Iraq: the Slow-Motion Fall of a Wily Dictator

The US should stay in the background but stick with sanctions

In the aftermath of Operation Desert Storm, critics of the Persian Gulf war assailed President Bush for not going all the way to Baghdad to ''bag'' Saddam, and argued that Desert Storm could not be viewed as a success with Saddam alive and ticking.

The recent high-level defections to Jordan of Lt. Gen. Hussein Kamel Hassan Majeed, the architect of Saddam's war machine, and Lt. Col. Saddam Kamel Hassan Majeed, the head of his personal guards, suggest that a Washington ''wait and see'' approach made sense after Desert Storm and, by and large, still makes sense today. How should the United States deal with recent events in Iraq?

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First, it is important to understand that successful coups in Iraq have always come from within. This is true of the overthrow of the Iraqi monarchy in 1958 and of the rise of Saddam's Baath party in 1968. There is no very good reason to believe that a coup launched from outside will work, unless well orchestrated and in conjunction with internal operatives.

Second, relatedly, Washington should not assume that the defectors have a significant base of power within Iraq. While it is true that the defectors held prominent positions in Iraq, it is quite possible that Saddam's son Uday was usurping General Kamel's responsibilities, with Saddam acquiescing to strengthen his loyal sons at Kamel's expense. Some sources even indicate that Uday had taken over some of Kamel's official jobs. This suggests that Kamel's power base, to the extent that it existed, may have begun to erode even before he left Baghdad. In addition, while Kamel was viewed widely as Iraq's No. 2 man, this is a bit deceiving. It means little when Saddam holds virtually all the cards. Kamel is not Al Gore; and Saddam is not Bill Clinton.

New purges in Baghdad

While Kamel probably does have excellent military and political contacts, his power base is currently under severe scrutiny by Saddam. Indeed, Republican Guard units have been dispatched around Baghdad, and Saddam's latest round of purges have already begun. Anyone with an even moderate connection with Kamel is in some jeopardy; in that respect, this is not a particularly propitious time for Saddam's internal detractors to plan a major coup, despite the shock suffered by the regime and internal instability.

Third, the United States should play an unobtrusive political role. Washington's fingerprints may well soil and derail the defectors. Hating Saddam does not equal liking Americans. Few Iraqis will eagerly support American-led or openly harbored Arab defectors. Iraq has a long history of resisting foreign interference in its politics, and that is unlikely to change soon. General Kamel may believe that he can engineer Saddam's removal, but such self-serving assertions should be viewed with skepticism. While the recent defections offer a potential boon of information, it is likely to be tailored to suit Kamel's personal goals. Both defectors are highly duplicitous and, like Saddam, have a great deal of Iraqi, particularly Kurdish, blood on their hands.

Fourth, as suggested by Iraq's argument that Kamel was responsible for hiding nuclear secrets from the UN, Saddam is more than ever inclined to appease the UN. Indeed, Iraq recently handed over to UN officials new information on its nuclear and germ warfare programs.

Washington should resist Saddam's efforts to get UN sanctions lifted, despite the compliant position of France, Russia, and some Arab states. Although he is under significant internal pressure, Saddam can reverse his plight if he sells enough oil to buy friends. Cagey as ever, he could still re-emerge solidly at home, and as a great regional threat.

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March coup attempt

On his present course, Saddam is in serious trouble. Indeed, he faced a coup attempt in March from the Albunimr tribe of the Dulaym clan, a traditional bastion of Saddam supporters. While the coup attempt was crushed repeatedly over three weeks, it was an unprecedented challenge from within his power base, which sent shock waves throughout Iraq. The recent defections further confirm the weakening of Saddam's traditional Sunni Muslim power base and indicate despair within his inner circle.

Fifth, clandestinely, Washington should help protect the defectors. Saddam's hit teams killed two Iraqi nuclear scientists who defected to Amman after Desert Storm. The price on Kamel's head is probably very high, family ties notwithstanding.

Finally, at the military level, the United States, along with Britain and other willing allies, should warn Saddam again about sending troops south of the 32nd parallel as he did in October 1994, an action which caused alarm in Washington and across the Persian Gulf. A blatant violation of this zone should result in punitive airstrikes.

Puzzling Iraqi troop movements in the past four weeks have led some observers to conclude that Saddam may have a southern target in mind. This is possible, given Kamel's recent revelations about Saddam's plans to attack Kuwait. However, it is more likely that he is once again saber rattling to keep his adversaries inside and outside Iraq guessing, and also heeding Napoleon, who counseled that in order to avoid a coup a leader should keep the army out of the barracks. In the end, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait may prove to be Saddam's slow motion Waterloo.

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