Why Hussein still rules in Iraq The ruling elite isn't RTC comfortable with any alternative

September 22, 1996|By Steve Yetiv

IN THE WEEKS prior to Iraq's invasion of Kurdistan, Saddam Hussein faced rising unrest in Iraq's armed forces, power struggles within the country's hierarchy, problems in his divided family (two members were put under house arrest), and a failed coup attempt by officers in May. Apparently, he also narrowly escaped a bomb blast by political opponents in August.

Clearly, Hussein -- the Iraqi strongman -- was under the gun. This partly explains why he attacked the Kurds in the north. In the process, he killed his political opponents allied with the Kurds, kept his armed forces focused on something other than ousting Hussein, and checked CIA influence in northern Iraq. Moreover, he temporarily undermined Iran's support of anti-Saddam Iraqi Kurds and thumbed his nose at Washington.

However, while Hussein may be threatened by internal problems, no serious alternative to his rule has developed in Iraq. And, so long as no isolated coup attempt or lone bullet fells him, even a weakened Hussein will likely endure and the United States will remain heavily engaged in the region. That is the real story of this crisis. It is an ongoing drama.

Hussein, who has outlasted virtually every leader in the U.S.-led Gulf War coalition, is unlikely to be ousted by a revolution, as he seemed to fear after events in Eastern Europe in 1989. Indeed his short-term success against the Kurds makes this even more unlikely.

Rather, possible threats to Hussein's rule come from within. The Iraqi elite who may be riding the fence between supporting and ousting Hussein need to feel that their lot will not be worse without Saddam. This is no small point. If Husein falls, the Iraqi elite risk losing prestige, wealth, and possibly their lives, in one or more of the following scenarios.

The first scenario is the total breakdown of Iraq, which high-level U.S. policymakers feared after Desert Storm but which some observers are calling for today in light of this latest crisis. Under Ottoman rule from the 16th century, Iraq was not a unified or independent state, but rather consisted of three disparate provinces: Mosul, Baghdad and Basra. When Iraq achieved independence in October 1932, these three areas came together into one state. Hussein, through brute force and sheer terror, has kept them unified, despite pressures in the north from the Kurds and in the south from the Shias, to tear Iraq asunder -- pressures that we are again witnessing today.

Fear of Iraq's breakdown would deter many would-be coup plotters and outside states from challenging Hussein. These players are concerned about the political and economic costs they may face under such chaos.

Second, in post-Hussein Iraq, Shia influence would likely rise. Iraq is predominantly Shia -- the minority, more fundamentalist branch of Islam -- but ruled by Sunnis who come mainly from Hussein's small town of Tikrit. While Shias currently lack political influence, Hussein's fall would probably alter this reality. This could pose a grave threat to Iraqi's elite, just as would increased Kurdish influence, and is a disincentive to eliminating Hussein.

In the third scenario, coup plotters must worry that with Hussein gone, and Iraq in possible chaos, Iran and Syria might gain influence. Syria, like other regional states, has created a special committee to rid Iraq of Hussein, and has cultivated political contacts within Iraq. Iran, which is 93 percent Shia, would delight in affecting Iraqi internal politics. It has done so before and would revel in Hussein's demise. Iraqi elites fear such an outcome and the current crisis only reinforces their fears.

Indeed, Iran currently supports the very Kurdish group -- the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan -- that Iraq's forces are trying to check. Without this check, Iran gains. The United States, in addition to Iraqi elites, fears this outcome. Indeed, Iran is as big a problem for the United States today as a weakened Saddam.

Fourth, U.S. officials, bolstered by the August defections of highranking Iraqi officers, now believe that the only way to topple Hussein is through his military. This is why they have been involved covertly in northern Iraq -- an operation which is at least temporarily in ruins after Hussein's invasion of the north.

Yet, Iraq's elite do not want U.S. influence over Iraq to increase, in scenario four. If they feel that the United States wants to hasten or exploit Hussein's fall either to impose a pro-Western regime, or for some strategic benefit, this will strengthen pro-Hussein forces. Just because some elites and many Iraqis hate Hussein does not mean that they like Uncle Sam. Washington should keep that in mind as it steps back to re-think its Iraqi policy.

The Kurdish crisis illuminates a key point. Today, Hussein leads by default; no group or alliance of groups, Kurdish or otherwise, is organized enough to challenge him. The current crisis has made this even more the case.

And that is both Hussein's power and Iraq's tragedy.

Steve Yetiv is a political science professor at Old Dominion University and a research affiliate at Harvard University's Center for Middle Eastern Studies.

Pub Date: 9/22/96

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