CRITICISM of United States policy toward Iraq is mounting as Saddam Hussein continues in power despite international pressure on the regime. Reports of a recent coup attempt point to a spirit of active dissent within the Iraqi Army. The bad news is that the coup's failure shows that Saddam's pervasive and alert intelligence services can still instantly crush such challenges in their infancy.
Saddam continues to test the US and United Nation's resolve, most recently by a three-week refusal to allow UN inspectors seeking information on his unconventional-weapons programs into the building housing the Agriculture Ministry. The crisis was defused without military action, but Saddam's determination to challenge world opinion is impressive.
Some critics say the US should respond by providing enhanced support to the Iraqi opposition. Washington must shortly decide on this proposition, following the visit this week of a delegation from the Iraqi National Congress (INC), a new grouping formed in Vienna in June. Representatives of the INC met with Secretary of State James Baker III as well as Democratic vice presidential nominee Al Gore. Does it deserve such high-level meetings? Are there risks both for the opposition and Washington? The answer
to both questions is yes.
In May, the Kurds, an important element in this delegation, held elections that demonstrated a degree of commitment to democracy unusual in the Middle East. In addition, Washington and Iraq's neighbors have welcomed the Kurds' assurances that they seek only greater autonomy and not independence.
The oppositionists - Kurds, Sunni Muslims, and Shiite Muslims alike - share one goal with the US: to rid Iraq of Saddam Hussein's leadership. However, Iraqis have well-founded reservations about the durability of American support for their cause. They should not assume unlimited American support.
Iraqis remember that only a British initiative last year induced a reluctant Bush administration to join "Operation Provide Comfort," the stationing of allied air units in eastern Turkey to block Iraqi attacks against the Kurds north of the 36th parallel. The rebels also know that the Pentagon fiercely opposes any deeper American military involvement within Iraq.
More-active American support for the opposition will further pressure Saddam and ease a lingering sense of guilt that the US was slow to blunt Saddam's military suppression of the Shiite and Kurdish rebellions after the cease-fire last year. However, the administration also is keenly aware that the Iraqi opposition sees this week's visit as a way to gain legitimacy and unify its movement. This does not commend the INC as possessing sufficient cohesion to be the vehicle for major outside assistance. The o pposition is also being courted by the various regional powers. Turkey, Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia each cultivates its proteges with little coordination.
Thus, the INC delegation cannot yet assure the administration that they have a fully united position beyond an agreement on ridding their country of Saddam. The Kurds still affirm their support for a united Iraq, but suspicion still divides Kurds from other Iraqi oppositionists.
The problem is that the economic sanctions are not proving decisive. The general population, not the regime and its military cohorts, suffers. The duration of these sanctions has far exceeded the time thought necessary to bring down the regime. The pain that sanctions have caused the average citizen is bound to have a long-run negative impact on Iraqi views of the US and the West.
While the INC needs US support and deserves it, caution is in order given the group's disunity and America's mixed track record in dealing with Iraq. Nonetheless, there are some initiatives we could take to show our sympathy and support without getting overcommitted. Meetings with top-level administration officials will in themselves add to the legitimacy of the opposition internationally and to some degree within Iraq. The US could support the release of some of the frozen Iraqi government assets to the
opposition. The question of a war-crimes trial could be reopened, and more resources devoted to examining the tons of captured government documents recently ferreted out of northern Iraq. All of these actions would require the assent and cooperation of the Security Council to be anything more than rhetoric.
The overriding obligation of American officials at this point in time should be to stay honest with the opposition and not pledge more help than we, in concert with our allies, will deliver.