Why Bush Wants Hussein Kept in Power

March 24, 1991|By GEORGE BLACK

LONDON. — London.

In Britain, too, the troops are coming home. Public support for the gulf war was as broad here as in the United States, yet the victory and the homecoming have been attended by more somber and reflective rituals. There are no yellow ribbons here, only red roses for the dead, and no braying chants of "We're No. 1!"

From the most unexpected quarters -- not just from opponents of the war -- one hears expressions of dismay at the way the conflict ended, with the mindless carnage inflicted on fleeing Iraqi troops along the road to Basra. And even from the upper reaches of John Major's Conservative government, Washington's most loyal ally, comes the fear (entirely justified) that Washington's postwar policy in the Middle East now includes the preservation of Saddam Hussein's loathsome regime, which U.S. troops seemed on the verge of annihilating.

Those of us who opposed the war are derided these days, as if we believed the Earth to be flat. A measure of humility is certainly in order: We were wrong, as were most of the military experts from whom we mistakenly took our cues, about the level of U.S. casualties. And in light of Saddam Hussein's bunkered resistance, we were probably wrong, too, about how long it would take for purely economic sanctions to force a withdrawal from Kuwait.

But the crushing of the postwar uprising against Mr. Hussein, and the way in which its leaders have been stiff-armed by the Bush administration, suggest that we were right on at least two important counts. We predicted that a military victory by the allied coalition would reduce Iraq to political chaos, whose dimensions were never given serious thought in Washington. And we believed that all the talk of "just wars" and "new world orders" cloaked less savory forms of self-interest.

Was the abandonment of the Iraqi opposition an improvised outcome of the fog of war, or was it a conscious political decision, as the comments of Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf back on Feb. 27 might suggest? "We were 150 miles from Baghdad," && General Schwarzkopf said, "and there was nobody between us and Baghdad. If it had been our intention to take Iraq . . . we could have done it unopposed."

The hawks' talk of bringing Mr. Hussein before a war-crimes tribunal is stilled. Instead, the remnants of Iraq's elite forces have been allowed to regroup, in clear violation of the terms of the March 3 cease-fire agreement, and massacre their opponents at home.

George Bush says he feels "some concern about the use of Iraqi helicopters" against civilian protesters in the Shiite towns of Najaf and Karbala and a string of Kurdish cities in the north. But while British diplomats have met with the leaders of the revolt, Washington has not let them past the front door of the State Department.

Worse, as one opposition delegate in Beirut complained to Robert Fisk of the London Independent (perhaps the best of the reporters who covered this war), U.S. forces occupying southern Iraq allowed Republican Guard tank units to cross allied lines on their way to crush the Shiite revolt in Basra. There is a parallel for this in the way Israeli forces in Lebanon in 1982 looked the other way as Palestinians were slaughtered in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatilla.

The Iraqi opposition groups understand quite well that the lives of thousands of their followers have now been sacrificed on the altar of Realpolitik. It would be wrong to say they felt betrayed by Washington, for recent history has left them with few illusions. When 5,000 Kurds were gassed by Mr. Hussein at Halabja three years ago, Washington responded with studied indifference.

Then as now, Saddam Hussein's domestic terror was not the issue. Then as now, he was seen as the preferable alternative to the spread of Islamic fundamentalism, a specter by which Washington remains transfixed. (After all, it's useful to remember what the origins were, 12 years ago, of those yellow ribbons that now festoon America.)

And the Saudi monarchy, now our closest Arab ally, has reasons of its own for fearing the repercussions of either Shiite anger or a democratic awakening next door in Iraq.

Saddam Hussein has ordered the minting of commemorative coins stamped "Victory Is Ours." That may seem the deranged act of a man living in a fantasy of denial. But if he defines victory as survival in power, Washington may have vindicated his claim.

George Black is foreign editor of the Nation. He wrote this commentary for the Los Angeles Times.

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