Iraq still threat, analysts say Policy: U.S. actions have lessened Saddam Hussein's ability to attack his neighbors, but military experts see only modest, short-term gains.

September 05, 1996|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Despite two days of U.S. missile attacks against Iraqi air defenses, Saddam Hussein remains entrenched and continues to pose a serious threat to the region that supplies most of the Western world's oil, outside experts said yesterday.

"It will have a modest, short-term impact," Michael Eisenstadt, a military expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said of the U.S. action.

Nor have the American attacks done anything to quell a festering civil war between Kurdish factions in northern Iraq that could threaten the entire region's stability, analysts said.

Nevertheless, President Clinton declared yesterday that "our mission has been achieved" in Iraq and that the attacks by U.S. cruise missiles had left Hussein "strategically worse off."

The Iraqi leader provoked the U.S. attack by sending forces northward last week into Erbil, siding with one Kurdish faction against its rival. But the United States steered clear of northern Iraq, seeking to prevent civilian casualties and to avoid becoming embroiled in Kurdish fighting.

Instead, Clinton ordered missile attacks against anti-aircraft sites in southern Iraq and expanded the southern area where Iraqi aircraft are barred from flying as a result of the Persian Gulf war. The new "no-fly zone," patrolled by U.S. and allied aircraft, begins just south of the capital, Baghdad.

The Clinton administration reasoned that while Hussein's attacks against the Kurds were serious in and of themselves, the broader danger was that he was again acting aggressively. Unless restrained, officials said, Hussein could again threaten Iraq's neighbors, particularly Kuwait, which he invaded in 1990 to set off the gulf war.

Analysts did point to some clear achievements for the United States. The expansion of the no-fly zone "sharply limits" Hussein's ability to launch a ground offensive against Kuwait or other oil-producing nations south of Iraq, said Anthony Cordesman, who follows Middle East military affairs at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.

By reducing Iraq's air patrols, the wider no-fly zone also makes Iraq more vulnerable to stepped-up U.S. actions -- for instance, against the elite Republican Guard, which was not targeted in the missile attacks. The expanded no-fly zone could open the way, Cordesman suggested, for future U.S. attacks against the Republican Guard.

But Iraq still poses "a very significant threat" to the area, the analyst said, because it still has formidable armed forces. Yesterday, Iraqi forces confronted U.S. fliers twice as they began patrols over the expanded no-fly zone.

The U.S. mission was circumscribed by a lack of cooperation from neighboring countries in the region and a determination to prevent or limit American casualties. The United States fired 44 cruise missiles into Iraq to destroy its air defenses. Together, they carried firepower equivalent to that of six to 10 fighter jets, said Eisenstadt of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

"This is very limited in scope," he said, and the missiles are less accurate than laser-guided bombs fired by piloted airplanes. As a result, they are less effective against Iraqi command-and-control facilities located in hardened concrete bunkers.

Analysts said Iraq's air defenses could be suppressed, but not destroyed.

"You need very extensive strikes and sustained strikes to keep an air-defense system down," Eisenstadt said.

Maintaining the no-fly zone could prove difficult, said Sen. Sam Nunn, a Georgia Democrat and one of Congress' leading authorities on national security.

"We're depending on countries like Saudi Arabia and Turkey letting us station our planes there and our troops there, and those countries are experiencing considerable internal difficulties, partly because of the American troop presence."

Phebe Marr, a senior fellow at the National Defense University in Washington, said: "I applaud anything we do to weaken this man's power."

But the latest crisis, she said, has resulted in Hussein's securing a toehold in northern Iraq, which has been split between two Kurdish factions: the Kurdistan Democratic Party, which has aligned itself with Baghdad, and the weaker Patriotic Union, which recently reached out to Iran for help.

The region remains as unstable as ever. Across the northern Iraqi border, Turkey has been fighting its own war against Kurdish independence forces.

"It looks to me like there will be more fighting in the north," Marr said. "The big question is the extent to which Iranians and Turks will get involved in this. This is not good news if your ultimate aim is the territorial integrity of Iraq."

Any breakup of Iraq, she said, would only add to the region's volatility.

Nunn, speaking in a television interview, said: "There has to be a real effort to get the Kurds to quit killing each other, because they're going to basically cause other nations to intervene, to the detriment of the Kurdish people again."

Pub Date: 9/05/96

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