3 options emerging for U.S. on Iraq regime

Cases to be made for war, containment, buying time

August 05, 2002|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- As President Bush continues to assert the need for "regime change" in Iraq, three options loom before the administration and Congress: go to war, continue to contain Iraq or buy time.

Opinion in Washington is divided among each of these options. Bush has made no decision to order military action, and many in Congress -- including senators who presided over two days of hearings on Iraq last week -- are withholding judgment.

Late last week, Saddam Hussein acted to forestall a U.S. attack. In a letter to the United Nations, his regime agreed to discuss the return of U.N. weapons inspectors, fulfilling part of a demand made earlier by Bush. Secretary-General Kofi Annan is expected to brief the Security Council on the letter today.

The administration reacted skeptically, but Hussein's gambit gave ammunition to those who advocate the "buy time" option -- holding out the prospect of going to war, but not anytime soon.

"For Saddam, it was a smart move at the right time," said Danielle Pletka, a Middle East specialist at the American Enterprise Institute.

The debate promises to rage at least into the fall. Here are key arguments for each option.

Case for war:

A grave threat would be removed. Hussein is bent on building up a stockpile of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. He is a proven aggressor and has used poison gas not only against a neighbor -- Iran -- but also against Iraq's Kurdish citizens.

U.N. inspections won't work. A multiyear probe by U.N. inspectors failed to satisfy experts that they had uncovered Iraq's complete arsenal or halted its weapons programs. Hussein played "cat-and-mouse" with the inspectors and showed in 1998 that he would endure U.S. military action rather than cooperate. The four years since have given Iraq the chance to build more weapons, improve its missile technology and search for the fuel for nuclear bombs.

Unchecked, Iraq threatens tens of thousands of lives in the Persian Gulf, in Israel and among U.S. forces based in the region. Worse, if Hussein were to acquire a nuclear bomb, he would have a powerful deterrent against any U.S. attack and could use it to gain hegemony over an oil-rich region vital to the industrial economies of the West. Iraqis think their possession of chemical and biological weapons deterred the United States from marching on Baghdad in 1991.

Toppling Hussein would help the war on terrorism. Reports persist of an Iraqi link to Mohammed Atta, one of the key perpetrators of the Sept. 11 attacks. Iraq is also suspected of operating a training camp for terrorists at the Salman Pak base southeast of Baghdad. Iraq could supply weapons of mass destruction to its terrorist allies. Hussein also subsidizes terrorism against Israel by awarding thousands of dollars to families of suicide bombers. If he were defeated, Iran and Syria could be more easily pressured into severing their links to terrorists.

Ousting Hussein would help the peace process. A new democratic Iraqi government, the goal of pro-war advocates, could set broad changes in motion throughout the Middle East, weakening the influence of militants and autocratic leaders, including Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Forward-looking, Western-oriented leaders could emerge who would be more flexible in negotiations with Israel.

A war can be won at reasonable cost. After more than a decade of sanctions, Iraq's army is degraded. Its equipment is in poor repair, and morale -- except in certain elite units -- is low. A combination of smart weapons, indigenous opposition forces and as few as 50,000 U.S. troops could accomplish the task. American allies in the region would support U.S. action once they were sure Hussein will be overthrown. Cost estimates are as low as $20 billion.

Americans would be liberators. "We shall be mobbed when we go there, by people who are eager for deliverance from the tyranny and the great big prison of Saddam Hussein," Mideast scholar Fouad Ajami told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Case for containment:

Hussein no longer poses a major threat. Iraq has not attacked another country since its forces were expelled from Kuwait in the 1991 Persian Gulf war. It has just a small quantity of Scud missiles, and its warplanes are effectively grounded by the U.S.-British patrols over northern and southern Iraq.

Even if Iraq were able to acquire nuclear weapons, Hussein would be loath to give a bomb to terrorists because this would deprive him of its control and leave Iraq open to a U.S. counterattack.

Hussein is not suicidal. He knows that if he fired a chemical warhead at Kuwait City or Tel Aviv, he would face a devastating counterstrike. But all bets are off if the United States invades. With his regime and his life at stake, he could use whatever fearsome arsenal he has hidden away, claiming thousands of innocent lives.

A successor government, even a democratically elected one, might well opt to continue Hussein's nuclear program as a deterrent against attack from Iran.

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