For the first time, President Clinton has publicly committed the United States to the overthrow of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, a goal it has repeatedly failed to achieve in secret.
But don't look for the CIA to begin another attempt to arm a rebel army any time soon. Such efforts are costly, fraught with risk, and failure-prone.
This is especially so with Iraq, where the opposition is riddled with informants: Thousands of Saddam's foes have died in US-backed plots that have misfired since the 1991 Gulf War, when Washington didn't give aid to uprisings it had encouraged.
Indeed, the latest crisis has, if anything, added to the obstacles, experts say. By aborting airstrikes after Iraq agreed anew to cooperate with UN arms inspectors, the US has reinforced doubts about its resolve to oust Saddam among allies whose support is key to any plan to replace him.
"The American administration is suffering from a credibility problem," says Shafeeq Ghabra, a Kuwaiti government spokesman.
Mr. Clinton's vow to "work" with the Iraqi opposition after aborting airstrikes last weekend may also have been partly aimed at deflecting criticism from Republicans who want to arm anti-Saddam forces. "It was a sop to the Republicans and was to protect the president's flank for not resorting to the military option," says Michael Eisenstadt of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank.
Yet all this does not mean the US may not be embarking on a more modest approach to engineer a rebellion against the Middle East's most entrenched dictatorship. By boosting political and financial support for Kurdish and Shiite and Sunni Arab opposition groups, the US could lay the ground for a more aggressive strategy.
This long-term strategy, experts say, would allow it to seek greater international support for Saddam's ouster, rebuild and test the reliability of the opposition, and demonstrate to regional powers its commitment to replacing the Iraqi leader. The US has been "working to ... try to help strengthen opposition groups," says White House spokesman Joe Lockhart. "That work to date has been mostly political. But as we move into the future, I can't rule in or rule out any potential options."
SUCH an approach could be enhanced by airstrikes the US says it will launch without warning to "degrade" Saddam's security apparatus should he renege on his pledge to cooperate with UN monitors.
Publicly vowing to topple a sovereign head of state carries profound implications for the US as it promotes the rule of law and cooperation as the basis of 21st-century international relations. Yet advocates insist that a US-led effort to oust Saddam is justified by his invasions of two adjacent states, use of chemical bombs against his own people, and the threat he poses to the world's main oil region.
"We are trying to destabilize a totally corrupt and murderous regime," says Rep. Porter Goss (R) of Florida, a former CIA agent who chairs the House Select Committee on Intelligence. "I have a hard time suggesting there should be equal protection for ... war criminals."
Officials say the US is examining a range of long-term options to destabilize Saddam. These would complement the policy of keeping him "in a box" through the UN hunt for his weapons of mass destruction, no-fly zones over most of Iraq, and economic sanctions. "The [US] military and the intelligence communities have been tasked to develop what I call appropriate capabilities," says Mr. Goss. These, he says, include "the traditional tools of propaganda and influence [and] information and disinformation-type activities."
He says the US must seek an alternative to the Iraqi National Congress (INC), the leading opposition group, which has failed to organize a coup. "This is going to take come time," he concedes.
Other steps are already under way. US-operated Radio Free Iraq, an Arabic-language short-wave service based in Prague, began broadcasting into Iraq in October to counter Saddam's propaganda machine. The State Department, meanwhile, has drafted a plan to help Saddam's foes improve fund-raising and organizing skills.
There have also been calls for isolating Baghdad by bringing international war crimes charges against Saddam and his top henchmen. The US efforts are being financed by the Iraq Liberation Act, which Congress passed earlier this year. Signed last month by Clinton, it requires him to identify Iraqi opposition groups and dispense at his discretion up to $97 million in financial, military, and political aid.
Clinton, long accused of lacking a long-term strategy for ending the costly confrontations with Saddam, has taken other measures to bolster the Iraqi opposition. In September, the US brokered an end to fighting between Kurdish rebel groups, raising the possibility that northern Iraq might become a launch pad for a broader insurrection. Saddam's army smashed a CIA-backed plot based there in 1996.
On Monday, Prime Minister Tony Blair committed Britain to seeking Saddam's ouster. Some experts say the US can also count on backing from Israel, which has extensive intelligence assets in Iraq.
Yet Judith Yaphe, a former CIA analyst now at the Pentagon's National Defense University in Washington, notes: "This is still a considerable way from the approach that Congress is talking about."
That strategy calls for establishing a rebel government and army in an area of Iraq protected by US airpower. The enclave would grow as Iraqi army deserters flocked to it, eventually leading to Saddam's ouster, proponents insist. But many agree with Phoebe Marr, a former Pentagon expert on Iraq, who says: "Funding small-scale guerrilla operations are plausible, but not likely. Funding a major military operation at this point is simply not plausible and is fraught with too many risks."