5 years after gulf war, what about Saddam? U.S. should keep working to contain Iraqi leader

January 21, 1996|By Steve Yetiv

IN THE AFTERMATH of the Persian Gulf war, few observers, including President George Bush, would have predicted that Saddam Hussein would still be in power. Mr. Hussein, however, has outlasted virtually every major leader of the U.S.-led anti-Iraq coalition. This raises an interesting and critical question on the fifth anniversary of the gulf war: How long can Mr. Hussein remain in power in Iraq and what should U.S. policy be?

Although no crystal ball can give a definite answer, Mr. Hussein's fate seems to hinge on six interrelated factors. When considered together, they suggest that he is far weaker than he was before the gulf war, but still resilient in the near term. Washington should continue to contain him and to ensure that United Nations economic sanctions against Iraq are not lifted.

The first factor that affects Mr. Hussein's fate is the extent to which he can control his personal security forces, which total more than 10,000 men. While a coup or assassination attempt could come from these forces, Mr. Hussein has controlled them effectively since the war through a combination of purges, executions and overlapping security groups that spy on each other.

Second, Mr. Hussein needs continued support from the Sunni elite, which forms his second major base of support. Two major events suggest that his position among the elite has weakened. The first was the unprecedented March coup attempt by the Albuminr tribe of the Dulaym clan, heretofore very loyal to Mr. Hussein. This was the first such attempt against Mr. Hussein since his Baath Party took power in Iraq in 1968. The second event was the August 1995 defection of high-level Iraqi officials from Mr. Hussein's family. Mr. Hussein responded to both events with force and purges. While this worked in preserving his power, it also cut down his cadre of talented, experienced people to the bone and reflected his weakening internal position.

The third factor is Mr. Hussein's control over Republican Guard divisions -- his third major base of support and his best fighting forces. He seems to have sufficient loyalty here, despite the gulf war disaster. While some soldiers have defected, the guard did play a critical role in suppressing the postwar Shiite and Kurdish uprising against Mr. Hussein, and in controlling the March coup attempt.

The fourth factor which will determine his fate is his level of control over Iraq's complex system of propaganda and terror. At present, he seems to be in full control. Recent elections in Iraq, which yielded him nearly 100 percent of the vote, were a farce but required coordination and domination of Iraq's propaganda machine. Strong public dissension, which occurs in Iran nowadays, is still rare in Iraq.

Fifth, Mr. Hussein's power is linked to financial resources without which he cannot keep key individuals and groups happy. U.N. sanctions banning Iraq's sale of oil deprive Iraq of $10 billion to $22 billion per year. These sanctions, while imposing unfortunate dTC pains on Iraq's people, are probably weakening Mr. Hussein's hand. The United States should strongly oppose pressures by ** such allies as France and Russia to have the sanctions lifted. If they are lifted, Mr. Hussein will not only become stronger internally but will be back in the military business big-time.

Sixth, Mr. Hussein's longevity depends to some extent on the possible alternatives to his rule. The Iraqi elite may dislike him, but that does not mean that they want him out. No clear alternative to Mr. Hussein exists in Iraq, although numerous groups, including the Shiites, Kurds, Communists, Arab nationalists and so-called democratic forces, compete for political influence. The opposition is divided, and the elite fear that with Mr. Hussein gone, their fortunes will be at risk as well and that Iraq may disintegrate altogether, leaving Iran a regional powerhouse. Such an outcome makes the Hussein option look much better to the Iraqi elite.

Five years later, we can say that Mr. Hussein has proved adept at the art of survival in Iraq's Byzantine, dangerous political arena. However, the destabilizing economic and political forces that he put in motion by invading Iran in 1980 and then Kuwait in 1990 are still in motion. And they may come back to haunt him.

Steve Yetiv is an assistant professor of political science at Old Dominion University and a research affiliate at Harvard's Center for Middle Eastern Studies. He is author of "America and the Persian Gulf: The Third Party Dimension in World Politics."

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