Washington Steps Up Pressure On Iraq

(AFP) - The spectre of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein still haunts the Bush administration, which is spending an increased amount of time plotting his ouster should he again reject the return of UN arms inspectors, experts here said.

Saddam's refusal to allow authorities to verify whether factories once dedicated to weapons of mass destruction have indeed been closed has brought debilitating sanctions on the Iraqi people and turned US attention to Iraq, despite the US focus on its anti-terror campaign.

But despite the known military risks and likely diplomatic sparks any pursuit of Saddam entails, Washington analysts suggest the regime in Baghdad, part of US President George W. Bush's "axis of evil," is on the US radar screen.

"I think that the United States at some point, probably after the November election, will put themselves in a position to change the regime in Iraq if Saddam does not agree on inspections" demanded by the United Nations, said Lawrence Korb, an undersecretary of defense under president Ronald Reagan.

And though no links exist yet between Baghdad and the September 11 attacks blamed on the al-Qaeda network of top terror suspect Osama bin Laden, Washington has made it clear Saddam's weapons-grade ambitions pose as great a security threat as the Islamist terror network in Afghanistan and beyond.

Within top layers of Bush's Republican party, said Joseph Cirincione, a strategy specialist at the Carnegie Endowment, "it's not a question of should we attack Iraq, but rather when."

Korb said such an assault could begin with support of armed operations by the Iraqi opposition, and be followed, if necessary, by the military engagement of as many as 50,000 troops -- a number bandied about by the Pentagon, according to US media reports.

The announcement last week that Vice President Dick Cheney would travel in mid-March to the Middle East, Turkey and Britain prompted renewed speculation that Bush's team, which includes members of the administration responsible for the 1991 Gulf War, seeks to isolate, and possibly strike, Baghdad.

But the White House strongly denied that was the purpose of the trip by the former secretary of Defense, while stressing that for Washington, the Iraqi people would be in a better situation without Saddam Hussein.

US Secretary of State Colin Powell said last week that Washington was examining a "full range" of options against Iraq, but kept tightly-lipped when pressed for further details, except to hint that "regime change is something the United States might have to do alone."

"How to do it? I would not like to go into details of the options that are being looked at," he said Wednesday in testimony to Congress.

But Judith Kipper of the Center for Strategic and International Studies said it was doubtful Bush would move to strike Iraq without assessing the long-term risks of such a move.

"This president knows what a price he would pay for his presidency and the consequences," Kipper said.

"I think also in the back of his mind he probably is thinking that if he tries it and fails, it will not only hurt his presidency but it will also destroy his father's legacy," a reference to former president George Bush, whose administration successfully fought the 1991 Gulf War.

The US focus on ridding Afghanistan and the rest of the world of al-Qaeda, coupled with the crucial midterm Congressional elections in November, make it unlikely that anything "military" would happen in the near term, Kipper added.

It is also important to remember, suggested Jon Wolfsthal of the Carnegie Endowment, that unless the United States has a clear mandate and the support of regional allies, occupying Iraq and the resulting need to rebuild the country "threatens to be more than even Washington can handle."

"Baghdad is not Kabul and (Saddam Hussein's) Republican guard is not the Taliban," he said.

Copyright © 2002 AFP. All rights reserved.

Email This Article


This Site Served by TheHostPros