Time to Get Real About Iraq

Americans need a dose of realism about Iraq and about what the United States can do in that country.

In their understandable frustration that US power has so far been unable to curb Saddam Hussein, members of Congress and pundits have insisted that he be overthrown. Various options are being discussed: massive aerial bombing, a ground force march on Baghdad, Radio Free Iraq, a government-in-exile, and covert action.

Aerial bombing remains an option if Saddam violates the accord signed with UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. But who is to decide that the accord has been violated? Washington, the UN Security Council, the UN inspection team, or the secretary-general? The US will be watching for the least sign of obstruction as a rationale for military action. Other nations will be more cautious.

And what will aerial bombing accomplish other than casualties and destruction? Few believe it will remove Saddam from power. It almost certainly will be the end of the inspection process. And there's been little discussion of what the US would do if Air Force personnel are shot down and captured.

The administration has ruled out the use of ground forces, as have many experts. So, do those who advocate a march on Baghdad really know what they are talking about?

Baghdad is approximately 300 miles from the Kuwait border, much of it over desert terrain. Beginning about now, the daytime temperatures rise to well above 100 degrees F. The logistics will be formidable. Given the real likelihood that Saudi Arabia would not support such action, narrow Kuwait would be the only entry and staging point. The US would be fighting alone.

And when the forces reach Baghdad, what then? It is possible that the city's people would greet the Americans as liberators, but that's not certain. Iraqis have a deep dislike of outsiders, stemming from Ottoman exploitation and the royal regime imposed on them in the British mandate. The US might find itself in a long, unpleasant occupation.

Nuri al-Said, the Iraqi strongman during the monarchy, once told an American ambassador that, if the unity of the three parts of the country - Kurdish north, Sunni center, and Shiite south - was ever destroyed, the country would be "ungovernable." That unity has been destroyed; an occupying power would need to find a leader who could bring together a deeply divided nation.

Radio broadcasts, governments-in-exile, and covert action plans all face the same dilemma: On whom would the US build an anti-Saddam coalition? US credibility among potential opponents can't be high. President Bush's encouragement to Iraqis to rise against Saddam left many Shiites and Kurds exposed and punished when US help didn't materialize. The failed CIA attempt to use the Kurds in the North and the resulting execution of several hundred Iraqis cannot have inspired confidence in the US ability to conduct covert action.

Any action against Saddam will face the stark intimidation of past executions and at least three levels of security forces. Does the US have the knowledge of Iraq to undertake a reconstruction of its political structure? Where among the fractious Iraqi exiles is a leader who would inspire confidence in Baghdad? How many Americans who might direct a covert action program speak Iraqi Arabic or have familiarity with that country's diverse groups and personalities? Neighboring Arabs, unsympathetic to the overthrow of regimes, the presence of foreign forces, or the breakup of Iraq, would be of little help.

Given the highly doubtful capacity of the US to engineer Saddam's overthrow, the constant talk of this objective serves little purpose. It probably neither frightens nor intimidates Saddam. And it increases his suspicions of US motives and actions in negotiations over the arms inspection process.

Containment and diplomacy are unpopular words to those impatient with Washington's inability to get rid of the Iraqi problem and Saddam's weapons of mass destruction. But, realistically, other options risk involving the US, alone, deeply in the politics and factions of a complicated land and region.

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