Unseating Saddam: Role Of US Iffy at Best

While the debate continues in the United Nations Security Council over curbing Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, the United States is taking steps to bring about change in Baghdad.

Radio Free Iraq begins broadcasting this month, under US auspices, from Prague. This is one of the first actions of legislation Congress passed in August authorizing support - including arms - for Iraqi opposition groups.

Observers of Iraq in the US, including panelists and participants at the annual conference of the Middle East Institute (MEI) in Washington earlier this month, stress the importance of helping opponents to Saddam Hussein, and, at the same time, emphasize the problem of Washington's credibility in this effort.

Iraqis, both within their country and outside, to no one's surprise, expect Washington to play a key role in removing Saddam from power. Statements of President George Bush at the end of the Gulf War and subsequent comments by Clinton administration officials have made clear the US view that the problem of Baghdad's threat to the region can only ultimately be resolved by a change in regime. Expectations were further heightened by CIA efforts in northern Iraq. When they collapsed, hope turned to disillusionment.

Those claiming familiarity with attitudes within Iraq today say that two views of US policy exist. In the pattern of conspiracy common to the region, the belief exists that Washington's sanctions and containment are intended to destroy Iraq, thus preventing the rise of a powerful Arab country. The more prevalent view sees the US as guilty of neglect and an absence of political will.

In any realistic effort to effect change in Baghdad, US policymakers face at least two major problems: the attitudes of Iraq's neighbors and the fractured nature of the Iraqi opposition in exile.

At least one speaker at the MEI conference urged the US to undertake more consultation with Iraq's neighbors, an objective easier to promote than to accomplish. Saudi Arabia, the most significant Arab neighbor, has been ambivalent toward Saddam. While fearing the Iraqi leader's threat to the Arabian Peninsula, the Saudis are also apprehensive that unrest in Iraq could provide an opening for an expansion of Iran's influence. The other key regional player, Iran, has, despite bitterness remaining from the seven- year war with Iraq, recently drawn closer to the Baghdad government. Iranian pilgrims are again visiting the Shiite holy places in Iraq. The US desire to open an official dialogue with Tehran on any subject was effectively rebuffed during the recent visits of senior Iranian officials to the UN General Assembly.

The possibility of discussions with Turkey, are complicated by the Kurdish factor. US efforts to build an active opposition to Baghdad through mobilizing Kurdish factions in the north alarm Turkey. Recent visitors to the north report a relatively stable modus vivendi between Kurdish groups lately at war with each other and the emergence of an incipient, functioning government. That may be good news to some, but not to Turks who oppose any sign of growing Kurdish unity.

US dependence upon the Kurds also risks alienating the other two major Arab groups in Iraq, the Sunnis in the center of the country and the Shiites in the south. This historic division of the country is but one complicating factor as the US tries to mobilize and - under new legislation - arm exiles in opposition. By one count at least 70 individuals or groups claim a right to leadership. Few appear to have the kind of links to groups inside the country essential to influencing change when it occurs. And those most likely to receive Washington's support may be those more effective in lobbying Washington than in removing Saddam.

No doubt Washington needs to explain its position more clearly. One panelist criticized US policy as being more interested in disarmament than in the welfare of Iraqis. Yet, beyond making clear the US interest, it is hard to avoid the impression that the American capacity to manage change in Baghdad may be limited. Change is most likely to come from within - probably unexpectedly and led by unknowns. US commitments to exile groups or to Kurds could well get in the way of an effective response to sudden internal change. Keeping a distance from regional intrigues and the fractious disputes of the exiles might well be the wisest course for the US, but it would not satisfy the frustrated and impatient Washington desire to unseat Saddam.

* David D. Newsom, a former ambassador and undersecretary of state for political affairs, lives in Charlottesville, Va.

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