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Regime change: How will we know when it happens?

A US victory in Iraq means more than removing Saddam Hussein, say experts.

By Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor, Faye BowersStaff writers of The Christian Science Monitor / March 21, 2003


Pentagon planners have analyzed hundreds of scenarios for the Iraqi war, but one of the most challenging may be this: Baghdad is captured, but Saddam Hussein cannot be found. His sons, too, have slipped away into tunnels and bunkers hidden under the capital city. And weeks go by.

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At what point will the United States be able to declare that the regime has changed? When President Hussein is captured or dead? When his elite 25,000-man Special Republican Guard surrenders? Or, when the top 2,000 members of the ruling Baath Party have been purged from government?

The chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Richard Myers, recently implied that even if Hussein is in hiding, that might be sufficient to declare a regime change. He told a Monitor breakfast earlier this month: "If the leadership is isolated and not effective in governing the country, that would be victory."

But would that definition be acceptable to the American public or to ordinary Iraqis?

"The most important objective is the removal of Saddam Hussein," argues Loren Thompson, a military strategist at the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va. "But once Saddam and his immediate family are removed, the challengethen is to wipe away the cultural residue of his rule that infects the political culture - the perversion, brutality, and aversion to democracy."

Most analysts see regime change as a two-step process.

The initial military phase could include the death or capture of the Iraqi president, his two sons, and their closest cohorts. The second phase - setting up a democratic government - might be harder and more time-consuming, given the totalitarian control the Baath Party has exercised over Iraqi society.

"The [US] military can claim victory when three objectives are met," says John Reppert, a retired Army general who now teaches at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government:

• When Saddam Hussein can no longer exercise the powers of state;

• When there is an end to organized military opposition;

• When US forces have an ability to move anywhere at will in the country.

Retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey, who led a "left-hook" US military operation across the Euphrates River in the 1991 Gulf War, says the first part of regime change will be accomplished within three weeks. He expects Iraq's regular Army - now known to be poorly equipped, poorly trained, and poorly motivated - to surrender.

The Republican Guards, which have three tank divisions positioned in concentric circles 18 miles outside Baghdad, can be destroyed by US airpower and ground forces within two to three days, he says.

But in downtown Baghdad "there will be special detachments of the Special Republican Guards who have tanks, BMPs - the Soviet fighting vehicle - mortars, and chemical weapons," General McCaffrey says. "We ought to assume that many of those forces will actually fight because they are going to get hanged by the Iraqi people if they surrender."

These tougher units are commanded by some of the men the US government says it will try for war crimes, such as Saddam's younger son, Qusay.

Special Operations Forces and mobile airborne troops will likely be deployed to hunt down Saddam Hussein, military experts suggest, even before the main body of US forces reaches the capital. "I wouldn't draw the conclusion that the only way Saddam is removed is because the Army drove up the road through Mesopotamia and took him out with an overland march," says Dr. Thompson.

An unwanted coup

There is also a regime-change scenario that could dramatically upset US plans for Iraq. "If another general, not too notoriously wicked, were to replace Saddam and say he was prepared to comply with all the UN Security Council resolutions, it would be hard not to deal with him," says Peter Galbraith, a former US ambassador to Croatia and vocal advocate for the Kurds. "That is the opposition's nightmare."

But if all goes according to plan, as soon as the fighting subsides, the Pentagon's 200-member Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance - set up two months ago - will begin reorganizing Iraq under the direction of Gen. Tommy Franks. That's when the second phase of regime change starts.

General Franks will have under him three American civilians in charge of three sectors of Iraq - the north, central, and southern regions.