US seeks right equation to topple Saddam

Bush officials say it is not matter of if Hussein must go, but when, and how.

In 1996, then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright outlined a plan to the Clinton White House for toppling America's longtime nemesis, Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein.

It would take a quarter-of-a-million allied forces, Ms. Albright concluded, but it could be done. But the numbers and uncertainty over the operation's aftermath snuffed support for the proposal.

A different administration, a war on terrorism, and a military success in Afghanistan later, the US is pursuing the idea of removing Mr. Hussein with renewed vigor.

Yet, despite quick speculation after President Bush's State of the Union address last month that the decision to shift the war on terrorism to ousting Hussein had been made, the Bush administration is signalling something different. Yes Saddam must go, but how and when that will happen has yet to be decided. In many ways the US is confronting the same core problem it has for a decade: How to get rid of Hussein without incurring unintended consequences.

Iraq has clearly got the message that it is back in US sights. At their request, Iraqi officials will meet with UN Secretary General Koffi Annan next week. The Iraqis hope to build international sympathy, while Mr. Annan will push for a return of weapons' inspectors to stave off US intervention.

In the days since Bush identified an "axis of evil" made up Iraq, Iran, and North Korea - administration officials have made it clear that Iraq is deemed the next "evildoer" requiring action.

But this new resolve to take some kind of action is raising the same questions: What kind of US force would it take to topple Saddam? Can the US count on anyone - either allies outside Iraq or anti-Saddam forces within - to join in the effort? What are the options for replacing a deposed Hussein, and is any individual or group ready to take his place? Can a post-Saddam Iraq - a country created from disparate ethnic and religious populations - even hold together? What are the implications for the strategic Persian Gulf region?

Pointing to the Afghan campaign and Saddam's weakening hold on his country, some experts, like Kenneth Adelman - one-time aide to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld - say that toppling Saddam's regime would be a "cake walk."

Others say the long list of questions still argues for caution towards Iraq. The game plan that worked on the Taliban regime may not work like a carbon copy if applied to Iraq, they say.

"I'd like nothing better than to have us take out Saddam, but we can't let success in Afghanistan blind us to the big problems that await us once we get rid of him," says Alan Tonelson, a foreign policy expert with the US Business and Industry Council in Washington. "I don't think regime change would solve our problems there."

But a need to keep a military focus on averting chaos in Afghanistan - as rival warlords jockey for position - could distract attention from an Iraq campaign. At the same time, action against Iraq that led to regional instability could have serious implications, some experts say, given the concerns of key US allies such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia, and the region's oil with its crucial importance to the global economy.

Jon Wolfsthal, an associate with the Carnegie Endowment Non-Proliferation Project, says "the real question is, has it all, including the consequences, been thought through fully by this administration?"

But White House officials say Bush is a "patient" president who is not about to rush into a course of action. Secretary of State Colin Powell recently told members of Congress that no action against Iraq is imminent.

But the White House will be taking deliberate steps over the next few months to put meat on a skeletal decision to solve the problem of Iraq through regime change. Options under consideration are direct military action, covert fomenting of a coup, and development of an Iraqi opposition force to do the job.

Next month Vice-President Dick Cheney visits a number of key countries in the region including Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt - that either border Iraq or could be called upon in some way to assist the US. He is likely to use his visit to explain that the US does not seek to cause Iraq's breakup, an outcome that could result in a Kurd-dominated state in the region that would be vehemently opposed by Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

May will be a key month. The US will present a proposal for a new inspections and sanctions program to the United Nations. How Iraq responds will be an important factor, with some officials predicting Iraq's rejection of any meaningful weapons inspection program will intensify a commitment to regime change. President Bush is also due to meet Vladimir Putin, who is publicly opposed to any military action against Iraq.

Mr. Wolfsthal says that, even if the decision to take out Saddam through a military strike were made, it would probably take most of a year before a US strike would be ready. Supplies of precision munitions, depleted by the war in Afghanistan, will need to be built up, and overflight rights and staging bases lined up among allies. At any rate, a campaign may not be easy. "Baghdad is not Kabul," Wolfsthal says, "and the Republican Guard," Saddam's elite force, "is not the Taliban."

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