EACH Tomahawk cruise missile that blasted outside Baghdad last week sounded the failure of America's Iraq policy - a policy President Clinton, after some back-peddling, vowed to continue. The United States continues to hope, in vain, for a military coup to topple Saddam Hussein, maintaining a unified Iraq to counterbalance Iran. The Clinton administration should change the emphasis of US policy and accept the risk of supporting the Sunni, Kurd, and Shiite oppositions. This is not only humanitarian, but s ound policy.
Support for the Iraqi opposition is dismissed by policymakers who fear that the fractious group may Balkanize the country, allowing Iran a freer hand in spreading Islamic fundamentalism. While these concerns are real, they have blinded the US from recognizing the opposition's gains, including a new-found unity, the development of a working framework for a federated, democratic Iraq, and a freely elected Kurdish administration in northern Iraq.
The US should support the opposition and stop viewing the thousands who died opposing Saddam as a blood-letting necessary for the geopolitical health of the region. An armed, federated Iraq can counterbalance Iran just like a genocidal, expansionist Iraq.
Before the Gulf war, US policymakers thought Saddam a necessary, if evil, counterweight to Iran. When coalition troops stopped short of Baghdad, the White House thought a coup might topple Saddam, providing an acceptable alternative - a militarized, unified Iraq that would counterbalance Iran and stabilize the region. But a new military regime is no guarantee of an end to Baghdad's destabilizing presence or its genocide of the Kurds. The stakes are rising as Iraq develops biological, chemical, and, possi bly, nuclear weapons.
The US underestimated Saddam's grip. President Bush called on the Iraqi military to take over - but did not support an ensuing Kurdish and Shiite uprising. A Senate Foreign Relations Committee report stated that White House officials said they "were looking for a military, not a popular, alternative to Saddam Hussein."
THE refusal to support the rebels came not only because of fear of a Balkanized Iraq, but because of an American sensitivity to Saudi and Kuwaiti alarms about Shiite gains in southern Iraq. Turkey, Iran, and Syria, each with a sizable Kurdish population, are wary of any encouragement a successful Iraqi Kurdish rebellion may provide.
Steadfast ally Turkey looms large in the US equation. Support for the Iraqi opposition may strain a strong friendship there. But this must be weighed against the possible harm Saddam can do. Moreover, the Turks are already allied with the Iraqi Kurds in the battle against the Turkish PKK (Kurdistan Workers' Party) terrorists.
Still the US continues focusing on the fears of its allies - at the expense of an ever more viable Iraqi opposition. Supporting these groups was probably the best way to dislodge Saddam after the war - short of taking Baghdad. Strong rebel groups could have given more of an impetus to Iraqi military officers.
Of the Iraqi opposition, the Kurds are the driving force. While the Kurdish past is marked by tribal and political conflict, the US gave little credit to the Iraqi Kurds for setting aside their traditional differences in 1988 and forming the unified Kurdistan Front, which included not only the two leading democratic parties, Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and Massoud Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party, but a socialist and communist party. The Kurdistan Front remained united and managed a n effective administration of northern Iraq after Saddam's forced withdrawal.
In the coalition safety zone between the 36th parallel and the Turkish border, the Iraqi Kurds held free and fair elections on May 19, 1992. Concerned about Turkey's reaction, the State Department threatened to prosecute election observers traveling to the north in violation of an order banning commerce with Iraq.
The elections were followed by a meeting in Vienna of the Iraqi National Congress (INC) - an opposition coalition. Then an INC delegation met with Secretary of State James Baker III last July - breaking a policy of no contacts. In November, INC met in northern Iraq, where opposition leaders elected a Kurd, a Shiite Muslim and Sunni Muslim hoping for a federated Iraq.
US piddling attention to opposition gains does not portend a policy change. The US has dealt with the opposition only when events dictated it. Following the Gulf war, Mr. Bush aided the Kurds only after the British proposed a no-fly zone, and Americans expressed public outrage that Bush would not aid those he called on to rebel. Events controlled policy, not vice versa.