WASHINGTON, Jan. 14 (UPI) -- Next Wednesday, Jan. 16 marks the 11th anniversary of the start of the U.S.-led coalition's air war against Iraq following their Aug. 2, 1990 invasion of Kuwait. Claude Salhani, a senior editor with UPI, who covered the war from both the Iraqi and coalition sides, reflects on the conflict:
In the waning days of Desert Storm, shortly after President George Bush declared victory, Saddam Hussein found himself in a precarious situation.
Following a ground offensive that lasted a mere 100 hours, Bush called an end to hostilities and silenced the guns that defeated the Iraqi army, evicting it from Kuwait. The "mother of all battles" Saddam had promised his countrymen, turned into the mother of all defeats, with his 500,000-strong army retreating in shambles. Tens of thousands of his shell-shocked troops surrendered to coalition soldiers as they advanced rapidly through liberated Kuwait and into southern Iraq.
The "new Vietnam" Saddam had threatened to drag America into, had failed to materialize. Instead, it turned out to be his Waterloo. Saddam, though, was never exiled to his "Elba," and 11 years later, remains still very much in control, and defiant of U.S. and international requests to allow international observers back to monitor his weapons of mass destruction programs, as requested by the 1991 cease-fire protocols.
In the closing days of the war, feeling that Saddam was teetering on the brink of collapse, the Kurds in the northern part of the country, as well as the Shiites in the south, openly revolted against Baghdad. They wrongly believed that the United States and the allies would continue their march, or at least their pressure, on Baghdad, and help topple the Iraqi dictator.
Fearing the worst, Saddam ordered his loyal Republican Guard units -- the elite of the Iraqi armed forces -- away from the front, and back to defend Baghdad. What he probably feared more than a U.S.-led frontal assault on his capital was that the uprising by Shiites and Kurds would spread to the center of the country, and to Baghdad. Divisions had already started to appear within the Sunnis who traditionally supported him in the past.
Standing about 100 yards beyond the advanced U.S. military position in southern Iraq at a place called Checkpoint Charlie, and reporting on the flow of refugees escaping the uprising in the area around Basra, I noticed a straggler who stood out from the crowd. Unlike other refugees, this one wore a black Western-styled business suit, white shirt and tie, and carried a leather briefcase. An unusual sight in the middle of the desert.
Mistaking me for an American officer because of the desert-camouflage uniform I was wearing, the man in the black suit walked up to me and offered his surrender. He identified himself as a lieutenant colonel in the Iraqi Republican Guard. He opened his briefcase to reveal his regimental black beret and a pile of documents. The officer said he was ready to provide "important military secrets to the allies." He went on to say that he "was fed up with the government and tired of all the killings," and that he "had many things to report.'
The whole time, the Iraqi officer kept shaking his head and repeating, "why, why did you stop? Another three days and the madman would have been ousted."
During the past 11 years many have asked that same question. Why did Bush order the coalition to stop short of overthrowing Saddam?
Legally, the U.N. resolutions (660 through 667 and 669 through 671) mandated the president to use military force only to evict Iraq from Kuwait. They gave no authority to the coalition forces to go after Saddam. But some experts say the lack of a U.N. mandate was an excuse. The Bush administration was fearful of four things: first, a fracture in the fragile multi-national coalition that included Arab troops (Syria, Egypt, Qatar, UAE, Saudi) would weaken the force and jeopardize the political backing the United States was enjoying until this time. Second, and this was a major concern of Colin Powell who was chairman of the Joint Chiefs, was the risk of American military casualties, which he wanted to avoid at all costs. Third, the partition of Iraq, and fourth, the lack of a replacement of Saddam.
"Gen. Norman Schwartzkopf, (the supreme allied commander) wanted to pursue Saddam, but was overruled by Powell," said George Irani, professor of Conflict Resolution at Royal Roads University in Victoria, British Columbia.
"Powell was more pragmatic and cautious, as were the Saudis, who worried about implications of a continued campaign on oil production," said Irani to UPI.
"The United States was not committed to go all the way. On the one hand we encouraged the Kurds and the Shiites to rebel against Saddam, but then we abandoned them in midstream," said Alon Ben-Meir, Middle East project director at the World Policy Institute in New York, and a professor of International Relations at New York University, who also teaches courses on terrorism and ethnic conflict.
"There was no alternative for replacing Saddam," explains Irani. "It would have been a disaster. A guerrilla war would have erupted. The Kurds would have proclaimed their independence and the country would have been partitioned into three, with Iran helping the Shiites in the south. Turkey would have never accepted a Kurdish state in the north."
Besides says Irani, "Saddam, for some in Washington, is a necessary evil."
Saddam might well be an "evil madman," but he is no fool, which is why he continues to survive as he does.
Since the end of the Gulf War he has managed to rebuild a good portion of his arsenal, including as some experts and intelligence sources believe, weapons of mass destruction. While U.N.-imposed sanctions have forced many Iraqis into poverty, they did not prevent Saddam from re-arming, or from selling oil on the black market to help pay for his weapons programs.
"The sanctions are no longer effective. Saddam can sell all the oil he wants to sell. It is much better in my view to renew the inspections and take away his excuse that the sanctions are starving his people," says Ben-Meir.
Post-Sept. 11 discussions around Washington war rooms have focused again on Iraq as a possible "phase two" in America's war on terrorism. But the reasons why Saddam would be difficult to eliminate remain as valid today as they were 11 years ago; basically, the dangers of partitioning the country, and finding a viable leader to replace him.
While some circles along the Potomac have been courting the London-based Iraqi National Congress headed by Ahmad Chalabi, many observers and some State Department officials feel he and his group lack credibility.
"The INC in London are thieves and pirates," said Irani, and Edward Speck, a former U.S. ambassador to Baghdad called them "silk-shirted, three-piece suited losers."
Opinions regarding Saddam remain mixed. Some, as Powell, do not see taking Saddam out as instrumental in winning the war on terror, while others, including Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy Paul Wolfowitz, (both of whom were involved in Desert Storm), would like to finish the job started 11 years ago.
"Attacking Iraq without first providing clear evidence of Saddam Hussein's culpability will directly play into the hands of extremist Islamic demagogues who exaggerate the scope of the present war by portraying it as an epic struggle between two civilizations -- the West against Islam," said Ben-Meir.
Should the hawks win the argument, the first step would be to create a "credible opposition and groom it internally," explains Irani. Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, wrote in Sunday's Washington Post that any move to oust Saddam would have to involve Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Irani takes it a step further, adding that Europe and Gulf Cooperation Council would also need to be closely involved.
Until now, thought, Saddam has successfully infiltrated all opposition, including the London-exiled group and managed to foment dissent even among the Kurds.
"If this war is, as we believe, truly against terrorism, then we must heed the sentiments of the much larger Arab/Muslin world community. For this reason, however despicable we may find Saddam Hussein and however strong our urge to punish him, we must first establish a direct connection between the Sept. 11 attack or the Anthrax mail assaults and Iraq before we act," advises Ben-Meir.
"If we find ourselves virtually alone in the battle against terrorism as recently suggested by New York Times' columnist Thomas Friedman, it is because, more often than not, we act unilaterally, consult later, if at all, and are perceived to act solely in our own best interests."
"We have a unique role with global responsibilities," points out Ben-Meir.
Irani, who has long studied the ways of the Middle East believes a compromise may well be reached. "Saddam will probably be forced to allow the observers back, in return for lifting sanctions. It will be a quid pro quo." As said Ben-Meir, "The time has come, in any event, for a new policy."
(Claude Salhani, UPI's "Life & Mind" editor, is author of "Black September to Desert Storm: A Journalist in the Middle East.")