Close Hussein aides unlikely to defect, U.S. officials say

Strategy combining force with enticement failed, intelligence officials say

War In Iraq

March 28, 2003|By Bob Drogin and Greg Miller | Bob Drogin and Greg Miller,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

WASHINGTON - A highly publicized U.S. campaign to persuade senior Iraqi military and civilian leaders to surrender has failed to produce any significant defections, and U.S. intelligence officials conclude that those closest to President Saddam Hussein are unlikely to give up.

The effort now appears to be one of several miscalculations in a high-stakes U.S. strategy whose planners hoped to use a combination of "shock and awe" bombing and inducements - including cash - to key Iraqi leaders to quickly overthrow the regime and seize caches of chemical and biological weapons.

"We underestimated their capacity to put up resistance," said a U.S. official who asked for anonymity. "We underestimated the role of nationalism. And we overestimated the appeal of liberation."

U.S. officials note that the war is just a week old, and they say that the sentiment among Iraqi military leaders could change quickly if Hussein's forces around Baghdad are routed by American-led troops.

But a U.S. intelligence official said no cracks have appeared in Hussein's command structure as American and British troops fight their way toward the capital from the south.

"I think the inner circle are in it for the long haul," the intelligence official said yesterday. The estimated two dozen members of Hussein's inner command include his two sons, Odai and Qusai, other members of his family and ruling Arab Socialist Baath Party stalwarts who have survived numerous purges.

The official said some "lower-level military units" might give up as U.S.-led forces approach, but "no one has gotten close enough yet for them to surrender to."

But a former senior CIA official said the U.S. effort to encourage defections has been scaled back sharply since last weekend. "The negotiations went nowhere," he said. "All of them have proved futile."

He and other experts on Iraq said using telephones, cell phones and e-mail or relying on Iraqi defectors overseas to contact senior Iraqi officials was doomed from the start because Hussein's secret police and spy services tightly monitor electronic communications in the country.

The official, and others willing to talk about the effort, requested anonymity because of the sensitive topic.

The CIA and the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency have spent years profiling the Iraqi military and government leadership, probing for vulnerabilities and signs of disloyalty to Hussein.

"You try to build a database on all those people, what their likes and dislikes are, whether their family is interested in leaving the country," a military intelligence official said.

The profiles are built on scraps of data from a distance, the official said: "It's really difficult to tell beforehand who's going to be receptive or not."

In recent weeks, White House, Pentagon and State Department officials repeatedly publicized their effort to reach out to Iraqi leaders through calls and e-mail, as well as with speeches by President Bush, the airdrop of more than 25 million leaflets, and round-the-clock, Arabic-language radio broadcasts to Iraqis on five frequencies.

It's unclear how many of the 4,000 Iraqis in allied custody surrendered because of U.S. appeals and how many were captured in battle. The total is a sharp contrast to the 1991 Persian Gulf war, when more than 80,000 Iraqi troops surrendered or were captured in the allies' 100-hour ground assault.

Judith Yaphe, the chief CIA analyst on Iraq during that war, said the Pentagon relied this time on overly optimistic assessments and predictions from Iraqi opposition groups in exile, particularly the London-based Iraqi National Congress. The CIA, she and other officials said, has been more skeptical.

"It was a fantasy," said Yaphe, who teaches at the National Defense University in Washington. "They had a strategic vision that we would face no opposition, that everyone would surrender, ... and people would welcome us as conquering liberators. Clearly those judgments were not based on reality."

A current intelligence official offered a similar assessment.

"The intelligence community was not overly optimistic at all," said the official, who is involved in discussions on Iraq. "There was very healthy debate on all the key issues: Who's going to hold together? Who's going to defect? Who's going to fight?"

But the official said many in the analytical community were convinced that administration hawks had little interest in hearing pessimistic assessments.

Some also were concerned that CIA Director George J. Tenet and others appeared more focused on helping the White House make the case for war than on calling attention to potential problems.

Bob Drogin and Greg Miller write for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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