Quagmire in Iraq

April 18, 1991

U.S. troops are now on the ground in northern Iraq for the best of humanitarian causes, the rescue of the Kurdish people. Meanwhile, Americans are left to wonder if they have stepped into the "Vietnam-type quagmire" President Bush insists he will somehow avoid.

Let it be said at the outset that Mr. Bush has acted correctly, if belatedly. This nation cannot avert its face from an immense tragedy it did not cause but in which it is profoundly implicated. If the United States was willing to use force to liberate Kuwait, it surely is morally bound to aid and protect Iraqi citizens it encouraged to rise up and overthrow the tyrannical Saddam Hussein.

Mr. Bush's reluctance to take this potentially dangerous course is understandable. It denies him the swift, clean exit from the Persian Gulf region that he and his generals desired. It shoves the United States deeper into the internal ethnic and religious struggles of Iraq. It threatens the dismemberment of Iraq. It raises serious questions of international law and the proper role of the United Nations. And despite the president's insistence that this military re-intervention into Iraq is "temporary," it represents an open-ended commitment whose limits depend in large measure on the capriciousness of the Baghdad regime.

The administration now "assumes" that Saddam will not dare attack Kurdish refugees under U.S. military protection. But in case this assumption is as wrong as some earlier ones, the United States is assembling a quick-reaction force in Turkey that is prepared to strike back. Thus, the potential for a renewal of the gulf war cannot be denied, even though half of the American expeditionary force has been withdrawn from the region.

There are other problems as well: How will a few thousand allied soldiers guarding refugee encampments prevent hundreds of thousands of Kurds from guerrilla attacks on an Iraqi army that has tried to massacre them? How will Third World members of the international coalition formed to liberate Kuwait react to the sight of American, British and French troops moving onto the soil of a U.N. member without its permission? How can these protective forces ever be withdrawn so long as Saddam Hussein remains in office with the capability of seeking revenge once again on citizens he has marked for genocide?

We raise these questions not to challenge the administration but to urge that it face up to the logical conclusion: the ouster of the butcher of Baghdad. If this was not a legitimate war aim before catastrophe engulfed the Kurds, it is now. It may require military action. It may be brought about by offering the dictator asylum in a third country, a course Mr. Bush has mentioned. But so long as Saddam Hussein is in power, Iraq will be a quagmire from which the United States will not be able to extricate itself.

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