Regime change: How will we know when it happens?

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

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.

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.

Theirs will be a daunting assignment, on a scale not seen since the end of World War II, when Gen. Douglas MacArthur was tasked with reconstituting Japan. And that, many say, was an easier proposition than occupying a Muslim nation in the heart of the Arab worldand the cradle of its civilization.

In Japan, there was an emperor who stayed on and basically rubber-stamped General MacArthur's recommendations. In this case, the leader will most likely be killed.

The US civil administration will be tasked with overseeing humanitarian reliefand vetting Iraqis, who will continue to participate in the military and various ministries.

"Iraq needs a very profound 'de-Baathification' at the administrative, educational, institutional and judicial levels," in the way postwar Germany was de-Nazified, says Ali Allawi, an exiled oppositionist. "It is not just a question of removing people at the top and declaring victory."

It is still unclear just how deeply the administration is prepared to reorganize Iraqi government personnel, but current signs are that a few top officials and generals have been slated for trial, and that several hundred others would lose their jobs.

"The Iraqis are going to continue to run the ministries as they run them now," a senior defense department official said last week. "We are going to have them keep running, pay them their salaries." At the same time, he added, "you have to have a face, a US face ... for every ministry," and two or three Iraqi exiles per ministry "to help us facilitate making that ministry more efficient."

However far the future US-led authorities in Baghdad go to change the face of Iraq's government, the change is likely to be bloody unless invading US troops can quickly stem a potential cycle of vengeance and countervengeance between officials and citizens.

There are three major ethnic-religious groups: the Kurds in the north, the Shiite Muslims in the south, and the Sunni Muslims in the central part of the country who have long controlled most government - Baath Party - positions.

"There is going to be a lot of score settling, and we are going to have to control that," says Judith Yaphe, an Iraq expert at the National Defense University in Washington.

The coming purge

The Iraqi Baath Party, founded on a socialist and Arab nationalist ideology, has about 1.5 million members, of which about 25,000 are full members - a status reached after a minimum of 12 years of activism, says Amatzia Baram, the leading Israeli expert on Iraq. "Any full member is automatically suspect, and if he is sitting in a sensitive post he should immediately be removed," Professor Baram recommends.

"Perhaps you don't have to worry too much if he is head of the rail system, but in the ministries of defense, the interior, education and information you have to go in very deep," he argues. "Otherwise, people will say that all the Americans wanted was to get rid of Saddam Hussein and keep the Baathists in power."

"The opposition and some governments have wanted to reassure midlevel people by saying that only the top guys are being sought, but it is not as simple as that," warns Charles Forrest, who heads Indict, an independent group gathering evidence of the Iraqi regime's crimes. The need for such reassurances has vanished, argues Mr. Galbraith. "Without the prospect of a US attack, the opposition's only hope was to induce people to change sides and launch a coup," he says. "The US administration shared that thinking. But once you've expended blood and treasure on an invasion, it is absurd to maintain an approach designed to foster a coup."

That approach is also "insufficient," insists Mr. Allawi. "It absolves the Baath Party as an entity of its culpability. A lot of people who want radical change in Iraq want it made clear that the whole Baathist experience has been a disaster."

The prevailing view in Washington, however, is that "Saddam Hussein's regime is essentially his personality and his power," says Dr. Thompson. "The thinking in the Bush administration is that most Iraqis were never part of the political culture that Saddam sought to propound and that therefore de-Baathification is about removing key people."

Those key people include a disproportionate number of men from Tikrit, Hussein's hometown whose tribal loyalties tie them to the Iraqi leader. Especially prominent in the Special Republican Guard, "they should be dealt with because they are a coherent force and could act like one" says Toby Dodge at Warwick University in England.

US officials are also worried about making Iraq ungovernable if too many officials are removed from their jobs.

"You are going to need Iraqis to run policing, streets, to distribute food as only they know how because they've been doing it," says Ms. Yaphe. "Being a mid-level civil servant is not a crime - most people joined the party to get some modicum of [financial] security."

At the same time, even some in the Iraqi opposition are nervous about the prospect of political purges, especially if they are run by foreign authorities.

"It is not for the Americans to decide whether or not to issue an amnesty, or to assign other people to jobs," argues Leith Kubbah, a leader of the Iraqi National Group in Washington. "That should be done by a sovereign Iraqi body.... Regime change in essence is not a question of who should be replaced by whom, but shifting executive powers to elected bodies," he adds.

No one knows when free elections might be held. But the way in which America leads the transition to its proclaimed goal of a democratic Iraq is likely to have an impact well beyond the country's borders.

"There is an idea that if Saddam Hussein and his immediate entourage goes, it is a victory, and adjustments can be made with what remains of the Baath Party," says Allawi. "But only real regime change will send a signal that the Americans are serious about democracy and rooting a different political structure in the Middle East."

Most Wanted Iraqis

Removing the key architects of Saddam Hussein's regime is a primary goal for US forces. The following officials are known to be on a US list of those wanted for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Saddam Hussein, president of Iraq

Accused of crimes against humanity, including the deportation of Kurds in 1980 and the use of chemical weapons against Iranian troops, Iraqi Kurds, and Marsh Arabs (Shiites in the south). Charged with war crimes for brutality against Kuwaiti civilians during the Iraqi occupation in 1990-1991, as well as against Iraqis during the uprising that followed the last Gulf War.

Uday Hussein

Saddam's elder son, commander of the Fedayeen militia. Accused of war crimes for overseeing the looting of Kuwait, and of crimes against humanity for executing dissidents during the 1991 uprising in Iraq.

Qusay Hussein

Saddam's younger son, who oversees all of Iraq's security organizations. Accused of genocide for initiating the use of brutal force against the Marsh Arabs, and of crimes against humanity for the mass execution of prisoners.

Ali Hassan al Majid

Saddam's cousin, military governor of Kuwait during the occupation, senior commander during the Anfal campaign against the Kurds. He is known as "Chemical Ali" after the use of chemical weapons during that campaign. Accused of genocide in connection with the Kurdistan campaign; also charged with crimes against humanity because of his membership of the National Security Council, and with war crimes in Kuwait.

Mohammed Hamza al Zubaidi

Former head of the northern bureau of the ruling Baath Party. Accused of war crimes in putting down the 1991 rebellion and of genocide for his role in suppressing Kurdish uprisings.

Barzan Ibrahim Hassan al Tikriti

Saddam's half-brother, former head of foreign intelligence, presidential adviser. Accused of crimes against humanity for his role in the murder of thousands of Barzani tribe members in 1983, for repressing ethnic and religious minorities, and for encouraging the use of torture and rape by intelligence agencies under his control.

Taha Yasin Ramadan

Vice president, prime minister, commander of the Army. Accused of the crime of aggression for his role in planning wars against Iran and Kuwait, and of genocide and of war crimes for his role as a member of Iraq's Revolutionary Command Council in brutality against Kuwaitis, Kurds, Marsh Arabs, and rebels in 1991.

Others identified

Aziz Salih Numan, the second military governor of occupied Kuwait, Izzat Ibrahim, deputy chief of the Iraqi military, and Hani Abd Al-Latif Tilfah, who heads the security organization accused of hiding Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

Source: International Campaign to Indict Iraqi War Criminals

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