General voices doubt on anti-Hussein bill Iraq could face chaos like Afghanistan's, top U.S. commander warns

October 22, 1998|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The top U.S. military commander in the Persian Gulf yesterday criticized a congressional proposal to topple Saddam Hussein with a $100 million Iraqi opposition force, saying it was poorly conceived and could produce an even more dangerous situation: an Iraq dissolved into Afghanistan-like chaos.

The Iraq Liberation Act of 1998 passed with strong bipartisan support this month and authorized $2 million for broadcasting and $97 million in military aid for an anti-Hussein army, although it did not require that the money be spent.

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, a Mississippi Republican, has hailed the effort as "a major step forward in the final conclusion of the Persian Gulf war." While President Clinton will sign the measure, said a State Department official, such a military plan would be difficult, if not impossible, to put into effect.

Gen. Anthony Zinni, commanding general of the U.S. Central Command, said the plan was severely flawed, thus expressing more skepticism about the plan than Clinton administration officials have done publicly.

"I'm worried about it because I think we have to be careful what we're doing," the four-star Marine general told reporters. "I don't see that there is a viable opposition, something that represents all groups, that represents the ability to provide something following Saddam that would keep Iraq intact. It should not be a case that the end result is just to get rid of Saddam."

U.S. policy-makers are struggling to deal with Saddam Hussein, who not only survived the gulf war but has ejected United Nations weapons inspectors and now appears to be winning support on the U.N. Security Council for the lifting of 7-year-old economic sanctions.

But Zinni said, "A Saddam in place and contained is better than promoting something that causes Iraq to explode, implode, fragment into pieces and cause turmoil in the region.

"It may sound good, but what does it mean in the end? I don't think these things have been thought out," said Zinni, a straight-talking Philadelphia native who has spent years in the Third World developing a rapport with regional leaders. "Do we create internal turmoil in there that will result in an Afghanistan-like situation in the end? Are we disrupting things in the region?"

Zinni's comments are going beyond what the Clinton administration has publicly said. "That's not 100 percent ours," said a State Department official. "What he said publicly we're saying covertly.

"The president's going to sign the bill. We can live with the bill," the official said. While saying the administration will work with Congress, the official said the measure would be difficult to put into effect and would need the support of other countries in the region, such as Turkey, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia.

"It's not like the mujahedeen in Afghanistan, who were on the ground and ready to fight," the official continued. The department has a $13 million effort that goes only as far as helping the various and rival opposition groups coalesce. "They're not ready to go in with tanks."

The congressional measure calls for the designation of an opposition group that would be trained, equipped and financed with U.S. military aid as early as next year.

The idea of an armed force against Hussein was conceived by Ahmed Chalabi, president of the opposition Iraqi National Congress -- one of the groups vying for the funds -- along with former U.S. military and government officials.

Lott, who held a closed-door briefing for senators in the spring on the proposal, said last week he favored moving from containing Hussein to "a policy of 'rollback.' " Lott did not respond to a request for a comment yesterday.

Paul Wolfowitz, dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and a strong backer of the opposition-force proposal, said: "If General Zinni thinks it better to have Iraq under the brutal rule of Saddam Hussein rather than an opposition group, I beg to differ."

Wolfowitz and other supporters say opponents are ready to fight. The Kurds in northern Iraq and the Shiite Muslims to the south have proved formidable against Hussein's forces, said Wolfowitz, but have failed to receive adequate U.S. aid. The VTC "incentive" of $97 million would help bring the opposition groups together, he predicted.

Pub Date: 10/22/98

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