December 24, 2002 | home
THE DEBATE WITHIN
The objective is clear—topple Saddam. But how?
Issue of 2002-03-11
After a year of bitter infighting, the Bush Administration remains sharply divided about Iraq. There is widespread agreement that Saddam Hussein must be overthrown, but no agreement about how to get it done. The President has given his feuding agencies a deadline of April 15th to come up with a "coagulated plan," as one senior State Department official put it, for ending the regime. The President is expecting to meet that month with Tony Blair, the British Prime Minister, whose support for the Iraqi operation is considered essential.
There is strong debate over how many American troops would be needed, whether Baghdad should be immediately targeted, which Iraqi opposition leader should be installed as the interim leader, and—most important—how the Iraqi military will respond to an attack: Will it retreat, and even turn against Saddam? Or will it stand and fight? There is also no certainty about how Israel will respond if Saddam launches weapons of mass destruction toward Tel Aviv and Jerusalem—as many officials believe he will do, or try to do, once an American invasion takes place.
The normal planning procedures have been marginalized, according to many military and intelligence officials. These usually include a series of careful preliminary studies under the control of the National Security Council and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. But now there is far less involvement by the Joint Chiefs and their chairman, Air Force General Richard Myers. As one senior Administration consultant put it, the military's planning for Iraq is operating "under V.F.R. direct"—that is, under visual flight rules, an air-traffic controllers' term for proceeding with minimal guidance.
The interagency dispute has, at times, become personal. The Pentagon's conservative and highly assertive civilian leadership, assembled by Paul Wolfowitz, the Deputy Secretary of Defense, has extraordinary influence in George W. Bush's Washington. These civilians have been the most vigorous advocates for early action against Saddam Hussein, arguing that his access to weapons of mass destruction, and his proven willingness to use them, make him a threat to world security. The leaders of the State Department, who are more restrained in their planning, accuse the Pentagon civilians of confusing dissent with disloyalty; Pentagon officials, in turn, accuse Secretary of State Colin Powell and his deputy, Richard Armitage, of a loss of nerve. "It's the return of the right-wing crazies, crawling their way back," one of Armitage's associates said, referring to Wolfowitz's team. "The knives are out." One senior State Department official angrily told me that he would "meet them"—his "pissant" detractors in the Pentagon—"anytime, anywhere." In return, one of those detractors depicted the State Department's behavior as "unbelievably personal and vitriolic. Their attitude is that we're yahoos—especially those of us who come from the far right. The American Enterprise Institute"—a conservative think tank in Washington—"is like Darth Vader's mother ship for them."
Senior State Department officials are said to be particularly displeased with William Luti, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Near East and South Asian Affairs. Luti, a retired Navy captain and Gulf War combat veteran who served on Vice-President Dick Cheney's staff last summer, is seen by people at State as so obsessed with an immediate overthrow of Saddam that he hasn't thought through the consequences. Luti's supporters, however, include Richard Perle, who was an Assistant Secretary of Defense in the Reagan Administration and now heads the Defense Policy Board, a Pentagon advisory group. Perle was one of Bush's early foreign-policy advisers in the Presidential campaign, and his views, which reflect the thinking of the Republican right, are taken seriously in Washington.
In previous Administrations, such interagency fights were often resolved by the national-security adviser, now Condoleezza Rice. But the National Security Council has been weakened recently by a series of resignations and reassignments, some of them said to be the result of internal bickering. The N.S.C. currently has no senior Iraq expert on its staff. Bruce Riedel, the longtime ranking expert on the Middle East, moved overseas recently on a sabbatical, and the person who recently filled in as the N.S.C.'s Iraq expert, an intelligence officer on loan from the C.I.A., went back to the agency after only a few months at the White House. A third regional expert left the N.S.C. this winter after a series of policy disputes with civilian officials in the Pentagon. With no replacement in sight, a former official told me, the N.S.C. has been forced to "farm out" papers on important issues to the C.I.A. and the State Department.
The difficulty in coördination, Administration officials said, is apparent in some of the proposals for Saddam's overthrow now being circulated. One plan that has been enthusiastically endorsed by the civilian leadership in the Pentagon, revolving around a small, mobile attack force of Iraqi dissidents and American Special Forces, and the declaration of an interim government, was derided by a top State Department official, who told me that it was little more than "a concept." Another plan, proposed by the C.I.A., which called for increased covert operations against Saddam and continued diplomacy while issues of invasion timing and force structure are worked out, was debunked by a former C.I.A. station chief as hardly different from the plans of the past decade.
The N.S.C.'s lack of high-level expertise on Iraq has created a planning void which is now being filled by retired Army General Wayne Downing, an expert on special operations. President Bush brought Downing in after September 11th as an adviser on combatting terrorism. The General has also served as an ad-hoc adviser to the Iraqi National Congress, the most prominent Iraqi opposition group. Both Perle and Luti argue that any move against Iraq should involve the I.N.C. and its leader, Ahmad Chalabi, who, with the C.I.A., planned a coup attempt that failed against Saddam in 1995.
Downing recently hired Linda Flohr, a twenty-seven-year veteran of the C.I.A.'s clandestine service who, after retiring in 1994—her last assignment was for the top-secret Iraqi Operations Group—went to work for the Rendon Group, a public-relations firm that was retained by the C.I.A. in 1991 to handle press issues related to the Iraqi opposition, including Chalabi and the I.N.C. The firm, headed by John Rendon, who once served as executive director of the Democratic National Committee, was paid close to a hundred million dollars by the C.I.A. over the next five years, according to an I.N.C. official. Last fall, the Rendon Group was retained by the Defense Department to give advice on how to counter what the government considered to be "disinformation" about the American war effort in Afghanistan. The firm was also retained by the Pentagon's Office of Strategic Influence, which was eliminated last week after the Times reported that it would provide foreign reporters with "news items, possibly even false ones." (Rendon's contract with the Pentagon was not cancelled, however.) Flohr also worked for a private business—it manufactured bulletproof vests—founded by Oliver North, the former marine and Reagan Administration N.S.C. aide who was fired for his role in the Iran-Contra scandal.
While the feuding continues in Washington, exile groups supported by the I.N.C. have been conducting sabotage operations inside Iraq, targeting oil refineries and other installations. The latest attack took place on January 23rd, an I.N.C. official told me, when missiles fired by what he termed "indigenous dissidents" struck the large Baiji refinery complex, north of Baghdad, triggering a fire that blazed for more than twelve hours. (The I.N.C. gets operating funds from the United States under legislation passed in 1998. Last fall, the State Department Inspector General conducted a review into how the I.N.C. had handled two recent grants, which totalled more than four million dollars. The review found that the I.N.C.'s accounting practices and internal controls were inadequate, and raised questions about more than two million dollars in expenses.)
A dispute over Chalabi's potential usefulness preoccupies the bureaucracy, as the civilian leadership in the Pentagon continues to insist that only the I.N.C. can lead the opposition. At the same time, a former Administration official told me, "Everybody but the Pentagon and the office of the Vice-President wants to ditch the I.N.C." The I.N.C.'s critics note that Chalabi, despite years of effort and millions of dollars in American aid, is intensely unpopular today among many elements in Iraq. "If Chalabi is the guy, there could be a civil war after Saddam's overthrow," one former C.I.A. operative told me. A former high-level Pentagon official added, "There are some things that a President can't order up, and an internal opposition is one. Show me a Northern Alliance"—the opposition group in Afghanistan that, with United States help, scored early victories against the Taliban—"and then we can argue about what it will cost to back it up."
The C.I.A. and the State Department are now accelerating their efforts to forge a coalition of former Iraqi military men and opposition groups, with the goal of convincing the steadfast Chalabi supporters that a new approach could work—without I.N.C. involvement. The key participants, known to some C.I.A. officials as the "gang of four," include representatives from the fiercely anti-Saddam Patriotic Union of Kurdistan; its archrival, the Kurdistan Democratic Party; the pro-Iran Supreme Islamic Council for Revolution in Iraq, a Shiite resistance group; and the Iraqi National Accord, headed by Ayad Allawi, a doctor who left Iraq in the seventies. The factions are now meeting regularly in London, and the long-sought concept of a broad opposition—without Chalabi—is "gaining mass," a former C.I.A. operative said, in part because of what other Iraqis see as Chalabi's arrogance and high-handedness. "Chalabi has succeeded in galvanizing the opposition against him," according to one intelligence official.
In recent months, Allawi and a number of former Iraqi military officers have attended meetings—more like auditions—with C.I.A. officials in various hotels in suburban Virginia, and a large conference of Iraqi exiles is planned for later this month in Washington. The C.I.A.'s brightest prospect, officials told me, is Nizar Khazraji, a former Iraqi Army chief of staff who defected in the mid-nineties. As a Sunni and a former combat general, Khazraji is viewed by the C.I.A. as being far more acceptable to the Iraqi officer corps than Chalabi, a Shiite who left Iraq in 1958. Chalabi earned a doctorate in mathematics from the University of Chicago and established a large bank in Jordan. He has no formal military background. A former station chief for the C.I.A. in the Middle East told me, "It would be ridiculous to tie our wagon to Chalabi. He's got no credibility in the region."
Chalabi and his allies have, in recent months, endorsed what amounts to a public-relations campaign against Khazraji, alleging that he was involved in a war crime—the 1988 Iraqi gassing of a Kurdish town, a claim Khazraji denies—and suggesting that he may be a double agent. "There's a huge firestorm over Chalabi that's preventing us from reaching out to the Iraqi military," a former C.I.A. operative told me. "It's mind-boggling for an outsider to understand the impasse."
More than five hundred thousand American soldiers took part in the Gulf War, and, until recently, military planners at the United States Central Command, or CENTCOM, in Tampa, have insisted that at least six combat divisions—roughly a hundred and fifty thousand troops—would be needed for another invasion. CENTCOM's current requirements remain classified, but, in an article just published in Foreign Affairs, Kenneth Pollack, the director of Persian Gulf affairs for the N.S.C. during the Clinton Administration, provided the following assessment:
Some light infantry will be required in case Saddam's loyalists fight in Iraq's cities. Air-mobile forces will be needed to seize Iraq's oil fields at the start of hostilities and to occupy the sites from which Saddam could launch missiles against Israel or Saudi Arabia. And troops will have to be available for occupation duties once the fighting is over. All told, the force should total roughly two hundred thousand to three hundred thousand people; for the invasion, between four and six divisions plus supporting units, and for the air campaign seven hundred to a thousand aircraft and anywhere from one to five carrier battle groups. . . . Building up such a force in the Persian Gulf would take three to five months, but the campaign itself would take probably about a month, including the opening air operations.
General Downing, however, believed even before going to the White House that only a few hundred Americans would be needed to train a small Iraqi opposition force. The plan he helped draw up as a consultant to Chalabi involved the seizure of an airfield and adjacent areas in the south, near many of the nation's rich oil fields; quick neutralization of the area's élite Republican National Guard garrisons, the Army units believed to be most loyal to the Iraqi leader; and the establishment of a no-drive zone in the south. The United States Air Force would also begin systematically bombing key Iraqi command-and-control facilities. In years past, Downing, who ran a Special Forces command during the Gulf War, has criticized the Pentagon for its elaborate planning and heavy-force requirements, telling his I.N.C. colleagues that if five thousand troops could do the job the Pentagon would insist on at least five times as many.
The I.N.C. supporters in and around the Administration, including Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle, believe, like Chalabi, that any show of force would immediately trigger a revolt against Saddam within Iraq, and that it would quickly expand. Perle dismisses the widely publicized concerns expressed by Iraq's regional neighbors, who expect prolonged civil war and chaos if the Iraqi Army stands and fights. "Arabs are like most people," Perle told me. "They like winners, and will go with the winners all the time."
The key player in any discussion of troop needs is Army General Tommy Franks, who, as the head of CENTCOM, would likely be in charge of a war in Iraq—just as he directs the increasingly difficult operation in Afghanistan. So far, senior Administration officials said, Franks is following in the path of his predecessor, Marine General Anthony Zinni, and insisting, despite pressure from civilians in the Pentagon, on an intense and careful American buildup in the region before Iraq can be attacked. "Franks is hanging tough," one of Armitage's associates told me. Marine Corps planners are depicted as less sanguine than their counterparts in the other armed services about the ability of a smaller American force to topple the regime. "The Army and Air Force are ready to go," Armitage's associate told me. "So it's 'Let's go work on the Marines.' The Marines are digging in and are not going to go"—that is, not going to lower estimates of the forces needed.
The renewed campaign against Saddam has inevitably quieted those in Washington who believe that the Iraqi Army will fight to the end. One recently retired senior military officer, who drafted CENTCOM battle studies with the Marine leadership, said, "We've got a bunch of people involved who think it's going to be easy. We're set up for a big surprise." A former American ambassador in the Middle East said, "If we have to have three months of bombing, with civilian casualties, we'll have real problems with the Arab world." Scott Ritter, the former marine who led U.N. inspection teams into Iraq during the nineties, predicted that the Iraqi Army would respond to an invasion by dispersing into villages and towns throughout the countryside. In that case, Ritter asked, "What will we do? Flatten the towns?"
Chalabi and his Pentagon supporters have been telling journalists that an attack could come as early as this spring. Any objections from France and Russia, Saddam's major oil-trading partners, would be assuaged, a senior I.N.C. official told me, by assurances that they would be given access to the extraordinarily rich oil fields in southern Iraq. Chalabi has been in contact with American oil companies, the official added, in an effort to insure that the fields get into quick production and provide a source of revenue for the new interim government that the I.N.C. hopes to lead. The French and Russian oil companies "would have to go as junior partners to Americans."
A senior State Department official emphatically denied the possibility that an attack on Saddam's regime could come so soon. "The President has a time line, but it doesn't fit what those boys tell you. The last thing we want to do is hit Baghdad and have Al Qaeda hit Chicago. We'd look real bad." The official added, "When we go to Iraq, we will do it right. There's a before and after, and we want to get the after right." A high-ranking intelligence official similarly noted, referring to Afghanistan, "We aren't done where we are now, and we got plenty to do where we are without biting off something else." A former intelligence official put the issue more vividly. "We're a powerful boa constrictor, and we're now squeezing out these terrorists," he said. "Let's digest these rats we've swallowed before we get another one."
Another timing factor has little to do with the bureaucratic bickering: the Washington Post last week quoted Pentagon planners as saying that it would take six months to produce enough precision guidance systems—the key to America's smart bombs— to sustain a full-scale invasion of Iraq. By midsummer, there will be added political pressure from the Germans, who are expected to urge the White House to do nothing in Iraq until after their national elections, in late September. One Iraqi expert said he believes that the government-wide debate over Iraq will be greatly influenced this fall by White House domestic-policy advisers like Karl Rove, who will urge the President not to invade Iraq—as the congressional elections approach—and "to focus instead on domestic politics, as his father did not."
The ostensible theme of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's official visit to Washington in early February was the Palestinian conflict, but there was an important private agenda for the White House: briefing Israel about the President's determination to overthrow Saddam and persuading its leadership to delay a response, as it did during the 1991 Gulf War, in the event of an Iraqi Scud-missile attack. Israel is within range of Scuds coming from western Iraq. Thirty-nine Scuds struck Israel in 1991; despite extensive air and ground searches by United States military commanders, and despite repeated public assurances to the contrary, there's no evidence that American Special Forces troops were able to find and destroy any mobile Scud launchers in the Gulf War.
During Sharon's visit, American and Israeli officials told me, the Prime Minister and Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, the Israeli Defense Minister, reached an understanding with Washington on advance notice of any impending invasion, and also urged that the Bush Administration do what was necessary—placing a large number of troops on the ground in western Iraq, for example—in order to destroy potential Scud-launching sites at the outset of an attack.
But the Israeli leaders refused to give the White House an assurance that it would not retaliate. A senior Israeli official told me, "We basically said that the United States should assume, in its considerations, that if Israel is to be hit, Israel will hit back. We took a hit in 1991 and did not hit back because we could have ruined the United States-Arab coalition. Our lack of retaliation was seen in the West as very smart, but in the Arab world it had a serious negative effect on Israel's deterrence posture. If someone thinks it can hit Israel and not be hit ten times as strongly back, it is a serious issue. It won't happen again. Our message is clear—if a Scud hits Tel Aviv with a dirty warhead and you have dozens of people killed, does anyone really expect Israel to sit there? Will they dare ask us not to respond?"
In the talks, the Bush Administration made it known that it anticipated that the Iraqi leadership would arm its mobile Scuds with biological and chemical warheads. "No one discounts the possibility of biological warfare," the Israeli official said, "but we believe it is more likely to be delivered by Iraqi aircraft, and not Scuds, and therefore is not as much of a threat. No Iraqi aircraft reached Israel in 1991, and Saddam does not have as much as he did then—and we're a lot better in anti-aircraft defenses." However, he added, "If Saddam believes that a regime change is the goal of an American invasion, and he is the target, it's all for broke."
One of Richard Armitage's associates described the threat to Israel, and Israel's ability to counterattack, as factors that cannot be dismissed, given Israel's known nuclear capability: "If Saddam goes against Israel big time and they come on our side big time, we've got the whole Arab-speaking world against us, instead of just Muslim terrorists."
Richard Perle took issue with the Israeli concern about an Iraqi bombardment. Because of the strong likelihood of devastating retaliation by Israel, he argued, Saddam would consider attacking only if his options ran out. "The doomsday scenario is that in desperation Saddam sends weapons of mass destruction toward Israel," Perle told me. "If you assume it's a desperation move, you have to ask yourself to what extent will Saddam's maniacal orders be carried out"—presuming that Iraqi troops and citizens, encouraged by the American attacks and bombing, would rebel against the leadership. "If you get that order and you're managing a Scud unit, do you carry it out? If you do, you're hanged or you're dead. By the time Saddam does that"—order the attack on Israel—"he's done anyway.
"Nobody's going to say that it's without risk," Perle added, referring to a United States attack. "From Israel's point of view, are they going to get safer in time?"—as Iraq continues to develop its weapons of mass destruction. "If the Israeli leadership is already deterred by what Saddam threatens now, what happens when he gets nuclear weapons?" Echoing the view of Wolfowitz and many of his colleagues in the Pentagon, Perle said, "The moment Saddam is challenged effectively, he's history."
A senior I.N.C. official said that earlier versions of its invasion plan, as endorsed by Downing, did not call for a direct military assault on Baghdad, but proposed quick-strike attacks on military units in the north and primarily in the south. In this scenario, Saddam would not feel pressured to escalate immediately and order an all-out attack on Israel, the official said. "We want to leave him room in the center of the country, to give him reasons not to use biological weapons on Israel." (One Israeli who has reviewed the plan described it as leaving Saddam with the option of staying in "a sliver of land" or risk moving to the north or the south with his Army, thus exposing the forces to American airpower.) "Baghdad will erupt," the I.N.C. official predicted, "and so he will go to his bolt hole at Tikrit"—Saddam's home town, northwest of Baghdad, and the site of one of his military complexes. "The possibility of survival will be an incentive for him not to use chemical or biological weapons," the I.N.C. official said. "The fall of Baghdad is the result, not the plan."
In May, the President has a summit meeting in Russia, and later that month the United Nations will review economic sanctions against Iraq. The new "smart" sanctions sought by the Bush Administration would make it harder for Iraq to buy dual-use goods—materials with both civil and military functions—but permit more medicine and other needed materials to flow into Iraq, easing the strain on the population. The United Nations will also consider a renewal of the oil-for-food program, with the prospect that Iraq will find it easier to purchase humanitarian goods. At any time, of course, the sanctions could be dropped if Iraq first accepted a renewal of United Nations inspections of its suspected nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons sites. The American plan, officials agreed, is to make so many demands—complete access to palaces, for example—that it will be almost impossible for Saddam to agree. The Europeans, especially the French, are known to be trying to persuade Saddam to "open up," as a senior Administration consultant put it, to another U.N. inspection plan and "not give the United States an excuse to bomb."
By June, a Presidential decision on how to proceed against Saddam should have been made. But there are some Administration supporters who see little evidence of long-range thinking. "The central American premise is that you deal with Iraq and everything else will fall in place," said Geoffrey Kemp, the N.S.C.'s ranking expert on the Near East in the first Reagan Administration, who, as director of Regional Strategic Programs at the Nixon Center, has been examining options for the Middle East after Saddam. "Syria comes to terms. The Saudis will conform. Iran will be surrounded by American forces, and the mullahs will have to make concessions to the moderates. There will be a settlement between Israel and Palestine. The end of Saddam will lead to an economic renaissance in Iraq. I'd say fantastic—if it happens.
"Whatever happens," Kemp went on, "Bush cannot afford to fail. At the end of the day, we must have a stable, pro-Western government in Baghdad. But it's important also that you look at the worst case. One nightmare would be that Saddam used weapons of mass destruction against Israel and you'd end up with a U.S.-Israeli war against Iraq. No one knows how much it will cost. You could have an interruption in oil supplies. Meanwhile, you've still got Afghanistan. The whole purpose of going in is to cleanse Iraq of all weapons of mass-destruction capability. If Saddam is gone and his sons dispatched, you will still need two things: complete coöperation of whoever is running the show and inspection teams to cleanse every bedroom and every crevice in the palaces. Iraq is a proud country that has been humiliated, and it's madness to think that these people, while hating Saddam, are in love with the United States. Latent nationalism will emerge, and there will be those who want to hold on to whatever weapons they've held back. The danger is that these capabilities could pop up somewhere else—in control of some small Army group with its own agenda."
This week, Vice-President Cheney leaves for an extended trip to the Middle East—where a significant and largely unpublicized buildup of American military forces is already under way. Officially, the Pentagon says that about five thousand American troops are stationed in Kuwait, but a senior Administration consultant told me that by mid-February there were, in fact, many times that number on duty there, along with an extensive offshore Navy presence. The military buildup, intelligence officials explained, is designed to protect Kuwait and other allied nations in the Gulf in case Saddam chooses to strike first.
The President's "axis of evil" language in the State of the Union Message and the steadily expanding American arsenal have prompted many anxious diplomatic inquiries in recent weeks from the Middle East and Europe. One of Cheney's goals will be to explain the U.S. position to allies and attempt to build a coalition for another invasion of Iraq—a daunting task, in the view of many inside and outside the government. The only likely ally at this point is Tony Blair's Britain.
With regard to the attack on Iraq, not everyone on the inside is sure that the President can get what he wants: a successful overthrow with few American casualties and a new, pro-Western regime. "We've got a great way to get it started," a former intelligence official said. "But how do we finish it?" As for Bush's eagerness to get rid of Saddam, he said, "It's a snowball rolling downhill, gaining momentum on its own. It's getting bigger and bigger, but nobody knows what they're going to do."