By every indication, the United States is eager to take the fight to Iraq and expel Iraqi President Saddam Hussein from office. President George W. Bush has said he is studying every option, and the U.S. appears to be proceeding with the diplomacy needed to prepare for conflict. Mr. Hussein’s departure would be something to celebrate, but a war that did not remove him would be a tremendous blow to U.S. power and influence. The best way to ensure his defeat is by building an international coalition that includes Arab states. Thus far, however, the U.S. has not yet convinced the governments in the region that it is prepared to do whatever it takes to succeed.
The case for removing Mr. Hussein is a good one. He has twice invaded a neighboring country and has attacked others with missiles. He has gassed his own people and committed other atrocities against Iraqi citizens. He developed a substantial stockpile of weapons of mass destruction and has done his best to undermine the authority of the United Nations as it tried to destroy that arsenal. He has offered the families of Palestinian suicide bombers money for their acts of terrorism.
Mr. Bush has reasons of his own to overthrow the Iraqi government. Mr. Hussein’s continued survival is a reminder of his father’s unfinished business at the end of the Persian Gulf War. During the 1990s, Mr. Hussein allegedly launched a plot to assassinate the former president. The U.S. is convinced that Iraq has not halted efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction and that it could again become a threat to regional peace.
The problem is that evidence for many of those claims is lacking. No convincing proof exists that Baghdad is developing weapons or will threaten its neighbors. Indeed, the unwillingness of many of Washington’s allies, and even some of Iraq’s neighbors, to support U.S. claims proves there is no proof.
There is no love lost for Mr. Hussein among his neighbors. They would be happy to see him go. But they also know that any attempt to overthrow him that failed would strengthen the Iraqi president, cast him as the hero that defied the U.S. and weaken governments that fought against him. That is a risk they are not willing to take.
That means the U.S. must develop a war plan that will not fail. Recently leaked documents focus on a full-scale invasion of some 250,000 troops. Other options are under study, and the CIA is reported to have already begun covert operations to soften up the regime. Any war will require support from allies in the region. Kuwait is the only country that is likely to offer unflinching support. The Japanese government has said it would continue to provide logistic support in the Indian Ocean if the U.S. attacked Iraq.
Turkey, which offered forward bases for the Persian Gulf War, would be a prime staging area. The Turkish government is said to be reluctant to participate in any attack, but the country is in desperate economic straits. It is reported to be ready to go along with U.S. plans if the U.S. writes off $5 billion in debt and guarantees that Kurds would not be given an independent state. Istanbul has fought Kurdish guerrillas for 15 years and fears that a regime change in Baghdad would splinter that country and the Kurdish populations would unite in independence. The U.S. is said to oppose such a state.
Jordan would also play a key role, but the government in Amman is cool to war plans. The kingdom was forced to choose during the Persian Gulf War, and sided with Iraq. The current ruler, King Abdullah, does not want to face a similar dilemma. He is already squeezed by the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis. Siding with the U.S. against another Arab leader would be extremely dangerous.
A final important element in any war plan is the role of the Iraqi opposition. They are a notoriously fractious bunch, although exiled leaders mustered a show of unity at a recent London meeting. Still, they have little influence in Iraq itself. As a result of the Persian Gulf War, some opposition groups have their own enclave in the north of the country, but they have been satisfied with the status quo. They get aid and military protection from the U.S. and its allies, and have been unwilling to do anything that might jeopardize that support.
Many of the questions could be erased if the U.S. finds evidence linking Baghdad to al-Qaeda or other Islamic terrorists. British Prime Minister Tony Blair has warned that there are “rough linkages” between the two and that the world might be forced to act if the ties were better established. Mr. Bush’s new doctrine that calls for “pre-emptive action” against terrorists would seem to lay the groundwork for war. Given the suspicions that already swirl around U.S. intentions, the evidence will have to be very convincing.
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