Lessons on how to oust Hussein

Kurds who fought in the 1991 uprising say involving them and encouraging civilian revolts are key.

Kurdish strategist Noshirwan Mustafa, standing at a conference table in his book-lined study, points out Iraqi troop deployments marked in red on a glassed-over map of the country.

He traces with his finger the arc of the US-led advance toward Baghdad, admiring how American forces have largely bypassed Iraqi troops around Basra. "I think the war is going very well," he says.

But a week into the fighting, Mr. Mustafa is critical of other aspects of the US battle plan, asserting that the US has allowed the Iraqi leadership to maintain internal communications, has only belatedly targeted the country's mass media, and so far has neglected the "political dimension."

"Until now, the Iraqi population has no [reason for] confidence that this is a permanent change of the political system," Mustafa says.

Mustafa, a gray-haired eminence in the Kurdish movement, was the architect of the Kurds' 1991 uprising against the regime of President Saddam Hussein, which culminated in their seizure of the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk.

The Kurds only held Kirkuk for eight days, in part because the US declined to prevent Mr. Hussein's forces from crushing their rebellion, but their experience seems to offer lessons that might be useful today.

Four key institutions

Mustafa recounts how the Kurds determined that the regime's power was centered in four key institutions in every collective camp, town, and city in northern Iraq: the branch of the ruling Baath Party, the local offices of the Iraqi intelligence, military intelligence, and security services.

As they did in other towns and cities in 1991, the Kurds targeted these four institutions in Kirkuk. "If you can crush them," Mustafa says, "you can control the cities."

In orchestrating the Kurdish rebellion, he adds, "we appointed for every small office in every camp and every city someone to be in charge of attacking it." He says the strategy worked; The Kurds evicted the regime from a swath of land across northern Iraq, including Kirkuk, over a two-week period in March 1991.

They lost Kirkuk when the Iraqis struck back, but thanks to a US- and British-enforced no-fly zone, the Kurds enjoy autonomy over much of this region to this day.

Mustafa, a founder and leading member of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, which administers the eastern portion of the Kurdish zone, has obvious reasons for sharing his criticism of the US strategy.

One is his experience in waging a battle similar to the one the US is now prosecuting. Another may be to argue for a larger Kurdish role in the slow-motion "northern front" that US forces are now establishing.

Mustafa says the US reliance on Turkey was a strategic mistake.

"The US depended on Turkey as an ally, and it was not an ally," he says. As a result, the US is approaching Baghdad from only one direction. "If there were a northern front through Turkey, I think the war would not last longer than one week," he says.

Lessons from Afghanistan

One alternative would be for the US to adopt a "northern alliance" strategy in Iraq, using the Kurds in the same way as it did Afghan fighters opposed to the Taliban in Afghanistan.

US Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Peter Osman has arrived in northern Iraq Sunday to head up the Military Coordination and Liaison Command, and Kurdish officials are pressing him to allow a wider role for the Kurds in any northern front. But this is a sensitive subject, since a Kurdish military role might well provoke a Turkish intervention.

The Turks do not want to see the Kurds gain any more power and autonomy in northern Iraq than they already have because they worry that such a development would inspire Turkey's Kurdish minority to demand a similar arrangement.

"We are capable of taking Kirkuk again, but for political reasons we cannot," Mustafa says. "But if the coalition orders us to have a role in liberating Kirkuk or Mosul or Tikrit or Baghdad, we are ready."

Another feature of the Kurdish strategy in 1991 was a propaganda campaign, in advance of the rebellion, to inform people collaborating with the regime that they would not be punished. "We alerted them that there will be no revenge, no looting, no killing and we will forget the past to build a new era," Mustafa says. The idea was to give lower-echelon members of the regime some incentive to go along with an uprising, rather than to defend the status quo.

No US calls for popular rebellions

Mustafa sees little evidence that there is any coordinated effort by the US to bring about popular rebellions in Iraqi cities. The US does not seem determined, in cities apart from Baghdad, to crush the institutions that the Kurds targeted in 1991. As a result, he argues, "the population ... cannot move."

What is clear is a near-total focus on the capital. "I think the grand strategy of Gen. [Tommy] Franks is to surround Baghdad and oblige the Iraqi Army to surrender as a whole and not division by division," Mustafa says, referring to the leader of the US Central Command. Even so, some US actions puzzle Mustafa: Iraq's internal communications systems, mass media, and electrical infrastructure seem to be largely intact after a week of war.

Allowing the regime to communicate within its ranks and with the Iraqi people helps maintain the perception that it is still in control, Mustafa argues. One way to counter this perception would be to put Iraqis in "liberated" parts of the country or exiled Iraqi opposition figures on the radio, in order to promote the notion that regime change is a certainty.

Instead, the propaganda effort, through leaflets and radio, seems focused on telling Iraqis to stay in their homes. "You can feel the lack of any Iraqi opposition element in this war against Saddam Hussein and his party," Mustafa says.

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