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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

Firing blanks

The plot to oust Saddam and the constant pounding from U.S. jets are going nowhere

By Mark Thompson/Incirlik and Douglas Waller/London

TIME magazine

November 1, 1999
Web posted at: 12:11 p.m. EST (1711 GMT)

Saddam Hussein doesn't get to pick his enemies, but if he did, the choice would be easy. Gunning for him on one front is a 25-year-old rookie pilot from California who wants to be known only by his call sign, "Loose." An F-15E Strike Eagle pilot, Loose recently lit his afterburners to escape a salvo of three Iraqi missiles. "I had a big fat grin," Loose says, remembering the day when the missiles came close, but missed, and his commander radioed back that he could retaliate with a pair of 500-lb. bombs. Once again an American pilot trained at a cost of $2.5 million had beaten the $14,000 bounty Saddam offers to any Iraqi who can down a U.S. jet. "People can say this is a low-intensity conflict," Loose said from his hardened bunker at Turkey's Incirlik Air Base. "But I can tell you that having somebody shoot at me definitely makes me feel like I'm at war. And I guarantee that the people I dropped bombs on feel they are at war."

Saddam's other "enemy" lives 2,000 miles away in an 18th century town house on London's fashionable Cavendish Square. It looks more like the corporate digs of a leveraged-buyout firm than the headquarters of a guerrilla movement. Instead of AK-47s and Molotov cocktails, No. 17 Cavendish Square boasts fully equipped offices with ergonomic furniture, fresh-cut flowers and expensive prints hanging on the walls. For a suite on its second floor, the U.S. State Department pays more than $200 a sq. ft. annually, according to documents obtained by TIME--double what most empty modern office space in London costs. Iraqi opposition leaders are supposed to use the lavish accommodations Washington has provided to plot Saddam's overthrow, but most say they stay away. For them, Cavendish Square is an embarrassing example of how the other front in this war with Saddam has become an extravagant charade.

Most Americans can be forgiven if they have forgotten--assuming they ever knew--that the U.S. has been at war with Iraq. A year ago, as the U.N. weapons-inspection program in Iraq collapsed, President Clinton announced that the U.S. would not only "contain" Saddam's threat to the rest of the world but also work to "change" the brutal regime in Baghdad. Clinton also signed the Republican-sponsored Iraq Liberation Act, which allowed him to supply Iraqi opposition groups with as much as $97 million worth of military equipment and training. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright appointed veteran foreign-service officer Frank Ricciardone to be her czar for overthrowing the Iraqi dictator, and in January took him along on a Middle East tour to show him off to Arab leaders.

Since then, U.S. warplanes have attacked Iraqi positions in northern Iraq on 89 days--about one of every two days they have flown. Just last week jets bombed missile sites around Mosul for three days. According to documents reviewed by TIME, on some days the Air Force has dropped more than 30 bombs and missiles on as many as half a dozen Iraqi targets. Two months ago, the war ratcheted up when U.S. warplanes attacked an air-defense center south of Mosul and later discovered they had caused "serious destruction" to a 500-man unit hidden there, according to a senior commander. The Administration, senior aides insist, finally has "a serious strategy" for keeping Saddam in his box and eventually ousting him. In his State Department office, Ricciardone has a framed picture of TIME's 1992 cover of Saddam with its red bull's-eye over his face.

Saddam doesn't have to duck for cover just yet. Personally, the bombings endanger him little. And they seem to have had slight effect on his power base, though it is tough to judge popular support for the dictator. One year after Clinton unveiled his plans to overthrow Saddam, Iraqi opposition groups grumble that the program is being staged more for show than out of any conviction that the exiles have a chance of succeeding. House International Relations Committee chairman Benjamin Gilman asserts flatly, "The Administration is not very serious...about replacing Saddam's regime."

Dodging the Golden BB

At Incirlik, an isolated Turkish base 444 miles southeast of Istanbul, the Gulf War has never really ended. Most mornings some two dozen American F-15s and F-16s scream skyward, along with E-3 and RC-135 command planes and KC-135 tankers to keep them safely flying and fueled. An hour later, in a delicately choreographed ballet 400 miles east, the warplanes take their final sips of gas before turning south toward Iraq. Their mission: to show the Iraqi military how impotent Saddam is in protecting Iraqi sovereignty--and them. Maybe this will foment rebellion.

The war out of Incirlik began last Dec. 28 following a four-day U.S. bombing campaign designed to hinder Saddam's efforts to build atomic, biological and chemical weapons. Since then, according to Pentagon reports, American pilots have flown close to 12,000 missions, dropped some 1,200 bombs on nearly 300 targets and destroyed 139 anti-air artillery guns, 28 radars, 13 mobile surface-to-air missile launchers and 22 command sites--all without a single scratch on American property. For the most part, the Iraqis lie low and launch a flurry of flak, hoping to down a warplane and deliver a live pilot to Saddam. "If you're looking at the right place at the right time, you can see the muzzles flash," says Captain Brian Baldwin, an F-15 pilot. "They're looking for the golden BB."

Lieut. Colonel Vincent DiFronzo, an F-15 pilot, says the Iraqi missiles and artillery are getting closer to hitting U.S. warplanes, which fly at more than 20,000 ft. to avoid Iraqi fire. "They're making adjustments that allow them to cover more altitude," he says. The Iraqis fire usually with no electronic guidance, which would sound an alarm in U.S. cockpits. Often the only alert pilots have is the silent pop of charcoal-gray puffs of smoke from exploding artillery hundreds or thousands of feet below. U.S. pilots say they attack only after Iraqi forces threaten them.

Many of Iraq's antiaircraft-missile batteries have been moved south to protect Baghdad and other sensitive sites, leaving ancient guns, and even rockets designed to kill tanks, to fire crudely at U.S. warplanes. Many guns and missiles still in the north have been placed in residential neighborhoods or amid historic ruins, where, the Iraqis know, Washington's sensitivities will keep U.S. bombs at bay. A handful of American planes are dropping some bombs crammed with concrete instead of explosives to minimize the chance of civilian casualties.

U.S. officers like to talk of the multinational effort under way at Incirlik, but it's a far cry from the 28-nation alliance that ousted Iraq from Kuwait in the 1991 Gulf War, or even the 19-nation war in Kosovo. The current force of 1,274 includes 1,058 Americans, 179 British, and 37 Turks supporting about 45 planes. The Turks fly no planes into Iraq, and the British fly only reconnaissance planes there. When it comes to dropping bombs, it is an all-American show.

Traveling First Class

Success and failure are harder to measure on the second front. A TIME investigation found that little if any of the $8 million Congress has already appropriated (in Economic Support Funds, separate from the Liberation Act money) to oust Saddam has ended up directly in the hands of Iraqi opposition groups. Rather, Capitol Hill investigators complain, much of the money has gone to high-priced public relations experts and consultants. A somewhat less than ferocious outfit called Quality Support Inc., of Springfield, Va., for example, has received $3.1 million to book hotel rooms, airline tickets and conference halls for opposition meetings. Of that, a State Department document estimates that Quality Support will spend about $670,000 for the seven-month lease at the Cavendish Square office and for three company staff members to work there. (Quality Support declined to comment on its contract.)

Money has gone to other projects that have little to do with overthrowing the Baghdad regime. The Middle East Institute in Washington is receiving $255,738 to host "thematic conferences" on what kind of government Iraqis should establish after Saddam's downfall. An additional $200,000 has been budgeted for an environmental study of Iraq's southern marshlands. "It's all just nonsense," says Francis Brooke, Washington representative of the Iraqi National Congress.

The CIA, which secretly plotted against Saddam before Clinton went public, is still picking up the pieces of its shattered operation. More than five years ago, the agency poured millions of dollars into a guerrilla force of the I.N.C., a loose coalition of Iraqi exile groups led by Ahmed Chalabi, a wealthy Iraqi Shi'ite and skillful political organizer. But with the White House nervous about being sucked into a contra-style insurgency war, the CIA pulled the plug on its support for Chalabi's guerrillas and turned to Iraqi officers in Saddam's inner circle who might topple him. That ended in an embarrassing debacle for the agency when Saddam uncovered the plots and crushed them. The CIA is trying to recruit new agents inside Iraq. But intelligence sources concede that it could take at least five years before that network would cause Saddam any worry.

Chalabi didn't fade away after his defeat in 1996. Instead, he flew to Washington, where, to the outrage of the CIA and State Department, he began cultivating key Republican Senators such as Trent Lott and Jesse Helms, who forced Clinton to sign the Iraq Liberation Act. Chalabi hoped that the legislation would open the spigot on U.S. arms and training so he could field another guerrilla force.

Last month the White House notified Congress that it was withdrawing the first $5 million from the $97 million made available by the Iraq Liberation Act. But instead of guns, the Pentagon is providing desks, faxes and computers. And for military training, the Defense Department is starting out by having four Iraqi exiles fly to a Florida Air Force base this week for 12 days of classes on the role of the military in developing democracies. The four have been told to wear casual civilian clothes. It is clear that the White House hopes that if military power can't oust Saddam, maybe these insurgents can. Others see the training in a different light. "It's lame," says Democratic Senator Joseph Lieberman. "It's obviously not what Congress intended them to do with that money."

Groundhog Day

The problem with simply discarding hope for an on-the-ground insurgency is that the in-the-air war is expensive and, top commanders will sometimes admit, ineffective. Almost every day at Incirlik is Groundhog Day, as in Bill Murray's 1993 film. "You wake up, you come in, you get ready to launch the aircraft, you launch the aircraft, they come back, you recover them, you go home," says Staff Sergeant George Palo, who maintains aircraft fuel systems. "We don't have a lot of calendars around here, because the only day that counts is the day you get to go home."

Operation Northern Watch, the U.S.-led effort to keep the skies over northern Iraq clear of Iraqi warplanes, is the strangest of wars. It is not being waged according to Pentagon doctrine. It lacks a clear, attainable objective and forfeits the initiative to Saddam. And it doesn't make traditional military sense. Risking the lives of your pilots to destroy an opponent's air-defense network makes sense only when such risky missions precede an aerial invasion.

Military experts are split on the effectiveness of this kind of wait-and-bomb war. Retired General Merrill McPeak, Air Force Chief of Staff during the Gulf War, believes it represents the prototypical 21st century conflict, in which a grinding, persistent battle plan trumps a short, intense war. "The bombing isn't hurting us, and it is hurting Saddam," he says. But Richard Haas, who helped run the Gulf War as a key member of the Bush Administration's national-security team, says a superpower's might evaporates as such a stalemate drags on. "When a great power acts, its military force must be seen as menacing," Haas says. "Using little bits and pieces of military force tends to be counterproductive because it becomes part of the background noise."

A New York City Vacation

Much of the war against Saddam has faded to the level of indistinct chatter, where it is hard to sort signal from noise. The problem is bad on the military front, but it is even worse among the Iraqi insurgents, who have to be coached, caressed and cajoled by the State Department. Last weekend 300 delegates from various Iraqi opposition groups gathered in New York City, where U.S. officials hoped they would finally lay aside their feuds and present a unified front. That didn't happen. The major group representing Iraq's southern Shi'ites, the Iran-backed Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, didn't even show.

The confusion helps explain why Saddam seems to have grown comfortable with his situation. Though the Desert Fox air campaign last December rattled his regime, and though there have been outbreaks of violence among Shi'ites in southern Iraq and even Baghdad, his security services always ruthlessly stamp out dissent. The CIA still believes Saddam will be eliminated by someone in his inner circle, but intelligence agents don't see how a "silver bullet" would ever get close to him. He has multiple layers of security around him, never announces his travel plans ahead of time, sleeps in a different bed every night and uses doubles for public events and even some private meetings.

And the U.N.'s oil-for-food program is helping Saddam stay in power. The nearly $5 billion worth of food and medicines the U.N. has allowed the regime to buy with oil exports has in some cases been re-exported for profit or its distribution in the country has been cruelly manipulated by the government to control hungry groups. Meanwhile, Saddam, who intelligence agencies believe is a billionaire, has built 48 palaces for himself since the Gulf War ended. Last April, according to a State Department report, he opened a vacation resort west of Baghdad for his cronies. It is complete with 625 homes, a man-made lake, stadium, amusement park and Ferris wheel.

Chalabi and the other exile leaders want arms and real military training from Washington now. The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (P.U.K.) and the other Kurdish faction in northern Iraq, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (K.D.P.), say they have 80,000 lightly armed fighters, while the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq claims a force of 20,000 Shi'ite soldiers who have been launching raids in the south. Chalabi wants to train about 500 exile intelligence operatives, who would first infiltrate Iraq. They would be followed by 5,000 U.S.-trained Iraqi guerrillas, who would seize territory under U.S. air cover and encourage demoralized Iraqi army units to defect to their cause. Democratic Senator Bob Kerrey would take U.S. support a step further. Containing Saddam with sanctions and almost weekly aerial attacks against his sam batteries "has failed," Kerrey argues. "I favor committing U.S. ground forces and air forces" to topple the dictator.

Saddam's neighbors, however, have concluded that Washington is not serious about getting rid of him, so they have begun rearranging their foreign policies to live with him and are pressing for the economic sanctions to be lifted. Most Arab governments refuse to deal with Chalabi or allow him to use their countries as staging areas for any guerrilla force he might assemble. Jordan has convicted him in absentia on banking-fraud charges. (Chalabi says the allegations were trumped up.) Though the loyalty of many divisions in Saddam's 400,000-man armed forces is questionable, U.S. intelligence believes that enough of the elite Republican Guard and Special Republican Guard units would stand and fight. And those well-trained divisions, with thousands of tanks and artillery pieces, would maul the guerrillas in what intelligence analysts believe would become a Middle East version of the Bay of Pigs. Faced with that possibility, it is no wonder the Clinton Administration seems content to let Public Enemy No. 1 remain at large.



--Leads an Iran-backed Shi'ite force but has boycotted the Iraqi opposition meeting in New York City because he doesn't want to be seen as a U.S. pawn


--His Kurdistan Democratic Party joined forces with Saddam's army in 1996 to defeat Kurdish rivals and rout guerrillas. For now, he's back with the opposition


--Head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, which has a small militia. He aligns with Chalabi when it helps the Kurds, but he has sent envoys to Baghdad in the past


--Head of the Iraqi National Congress, he is the most dynamic of the leaders and well connected in Washington, but other guerrilla groups and Arab nations distrust him


Cover Date: November 8, 1999

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