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Bombing Iraq

by Patrick Cockburn

The long snouts of anti-aircraft guns are again protruding from the tops of tall buildings in Iraq. Tank units have been deployed around oilfields. Special committees drawn from local leaders of the army, security forces and the ruling Baath party will try to ensure that any rebellion is quickly crushed. President Saddam Hussein himself has told people to store food in case of a new American air war as prolonged as that of 1991.

President Saddam says that war with the US will come, but he knows that it is likely to be delayed until next year. Washington is no longer in quite the confident mood that it was after the defeat of the Taliban in Afghanistan in December.

The differences between the situations in Kabul and Baghdad have become more apparent in the past few months. Britain, hitherto America’s sole ally in its bid to overthrow President Saddam, is becoming increasingly nervous of the political opposition at home to military adventures with the US against Iraq.

Above all, Ariel Sharon’s bloody invasion of Palestinian cities on the West Bank has made it more difficult for the US to recreate the alliance that drove the Iraqi army out of Kuwait more than a decade ago.

“Saddam knows that Washington does not have the appetite for a war this year,” said one Iraqi source.

It is a very different situation from the Gulf War. Then the alliance against President Saddam was surprisingly easy to create. The Arab states were terrified by his conquest of Kuwait. The rest of the world was never going to let Iraq become the dominant power in the Gulf. The problem seemed to be overcoming the military strength of the Iraqi army, tested by eight long years of war with Iran.

Today nobody doubts that the Iraqi army is a shadow of its former self. Aside from its losses in the Gulf War, it has not been able to import tanks and other heavy equipment. But politically it is a far harder task now to create an alliance with the aim of overthrowing the Iraqi leader than it was 12 years ago.

Then, the purpose of the US-led coalition was to restore the status quo by evicting Iraq from Kuwait. It was a conservative war. What Washington intends today is far more radical. It is in fact the first attempt to replace a government by armed force in the Middle East since President Saddam took the disastrous decision to send his troops across the Kuwaiti border.

Baghdad will do its best to ensure that it does not provide the US administration with a pretext for war. It has softened its line over the return of UN weapons inspectors, who left in December 1998 just before the US and Britain last bombed Iraq. In talks with Kofi Annan, the UN secretary general, in New York last week, Iraqi officials were notably conciliatory. Naji Sabri, the Iraqi Foreign Minister, did not rule out the return of the inspectors but wanted other issues, such as the no-fly zones and sanctions, to be discussed.

It is all very frustrating for militant members of the US administration, such as Vice-President Dick Cheney and the Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, who would like to overthrow President Saddam immediately. They do not want to become caught up in a diplomatic minuet in which they have to dance to the same tune as the UN.

Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of defence and an impatient hawk, even instructed the CIA to investigate Hans Blix, the Swedish diplomat who is the chief UN arms inspector. Mr Wolfowitz was visibly enraged when the CIA came back with nothing that would have discredited Mr Blix and, by extension, the UN weapons inspection team.

These diplomatic manoeuvres are important because the US task is far more difficult than it was in Afghanistan. It needs to be able to launch not only a prolonged air offensive but to build up an army estimated to number between 70,000 and 250,000 troops. In Afghanistan, the Taliban was overthrown by the opposition Northern Alliance, US air strikes and the defection of many commanders. The Taliban was also gravely weakened by the withdrawal of Pakistani and Saudi Arabian support.

The situation is different in Iraq. It has a powerful centralised state. Only the Kurds, controlling the three northern provinces of Iraq, would be able to play the role of the Northern Alliance. Betrayed by the US twice in the past, in 1975 and again in 1991, the Kurds will not want to go to war against Baghdad unless there is a US army in place to protect them.

There are two other ways of removing Saddam Hussein, but Washington has concluded that neither is likely to work effectively. It could, as it often has in the past, hope that a coup led by by dissident army officers in Baghdad will remove the Iraqi leader. But President Saddam has shown that he is a master at detecting and eliminating such plots, with horrific consequences for those involved.

A further option might be to build a guerrilla army, supported by US air power and special forces. Something like this worked in southern Afghanistan, but President Saddam is likely to counter-attack more effectively than the Taliban.

Washington is shifting towards the idea of a ground invasion, with an army based in Kuwait and Turkey. An attack would be preceded by a prolonged bombardment by bombs and missiles. The Iraqi army is still strong enough to fight the Kurdish or Iraqi guerrillas, but it is even less capable of stopping the US army than it was in 1991. Even confirmed fence-sitters such as the Kurds do not want to be marginalised by failing to join an American effort to get rid of President Saddam which succeeds.

It is becoming increasingly difficult for President George Bush to walk away from his militant rhetoric about toppling President Saddam. If he does not overthrow the Iraqi leader then his failure will damage him in the next presidential election. But already Mr Bush is discovering how much more complicated it is to change a government in Baghdad than it was in Kabul.



Patrick Cockburn is the author of  The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution.

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