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Time To Off Saddam?

It's a simple solution to the Iraq problem. But risks make it an unrealistic option for the U.S.

By Johanna McGeary/TIME

Time cover

Think back to those first weeks of January 1991. For 16 days, the U.S. and Iraq played diplomatic cat-and-mouse as Saddam Hussein tested what he would have to concede to forestall military attack. The American President exhausted every diplomatic option before unleashing the allied assault. Saddam's ultimate objective was to hold on to a prize he deemed essential to his power. Then it was Kuwait. Now in the first weeks of February 1998, the stakes are weapons of mass destruction, but the game is distinctly the same. And the question is whether the result will be the same: vast destruction in Iraq but the continued reign of Saddam.

To alter that outcome, leading congressional Republicans have been advising President Bill Clinton to get rid of Saddam once and for all. Depose him, capture him, kill him if necessary. That's the only sure way to terminate the seven-year-old practice of "cheat and retreat" that has let Iraq squirrel away warheads capable of carrying enough biological weapons to threaten its neighbors. It is a simple solution--in theory.

Reality is different. The U.S. must make its choices from risky, less conclusive options. As the diplomatic game is played out in search of a nonviolent end to this standoff, Clinton and the American public need to think hard about what, realistically, can and cannot be done.

Few Americans dispute that there is a valid case for taking out Saddam. The Iraqi leader even more than his suspected arsenal menaces his neighborhood. He has, in a galling way, been able to fashion a kind of victory out of defeat: the embargo blockading his country has enabled Saddam to blame the U.S. for his country's problems. He continues to frustrate U.N. resolutions designed to neuter his military might.

The bombing campaign the Clinton Administration has in mind, critics contend, would neither bring compliance with the U.N. nor remove Saddam. The bombs would demolish all hope of more inspections but would not stop Saddam from rebuilding his germ factories, and that would just provoke another military confrontation later.

Even the most ardent Saddam hunters have to admit that taking him out would entail a huge, high-risk military operation: months of preparation to deploy thousands of ground troops to fight their way to the Iraqi capital while courting substantial casualties, then arrest or kill him. The U.S. would be pitched into an open-ended occupation and saddled with rescuing a devastated economy.

And then what? Advocates suggest there is a palatable alternative to Saddam just waiting to step in. In fact, all efforts to organize an effective Iraqi opposition have failed. There is a good chance Saddam would be replaced by Saddam II, another Baathist general ready to continue the military dictatorship. More likely still, a headless Iraq would go the way of Lebanon, fractured among Kurds in the north, Shi'ites in the south and Sunnis in the center egged on by meddling neighbor states pursuing oil and ethnic interests.

Politics rather than practical policy is behind much of the war fever. Congressional Republicans want a Democratic President to wage a second war to topple Saddam because they fear being on the wrong side of the issue if Clinton's bombing campaign accomplishes nothing. "Incremental timidity that only punishes Saddam and leaves him in place to build weapons is a defeat, not a success," says Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. Yet it is hard to imagine this Congress--or the voters--actually consenting to an expensive, dangerous ground war. "This is just game playing," say Clinton aides--Republicans positioning themselves so they can blame Clinton for being too weak.

It's not that Clinton disagrees with the basic premise. "Would the Iraqi people be better off if there was a change in leadership?" he said last week. "I certainly think they would be." But he is stuck between strong opposite pressures: while congressional hawks urge going in for the kill, all of the gulf coalition save Britain resists any strikes against Iraq. Given his lousy choices, the President affirmed last week that he is not prepared to go after Saddam.

A short-term bombing campaign that simply punishes Saddam may be the most the U.S. can do. The economic embargo is fraying; Saudi Arabia and Egypt fear destabilizing political fallout in their own countries; Russia and France are worried that American bombs plus Iraqi casualties would only consolidate domestic support for Saddam. "He wants bombing raids," says a French diplomat. "The more he gets of it, the more united the Iraqis are around him. As long as the source of misery is seen as coming from abroad, he wins."

While the U.S. and Britain firmly repeated that they want a diplomatic solution and while assorted envoys search for compromise, the U.S.-British military operation is in effect already under way. Defense Secretary William Cohen is now making a Middle East tour to nail down what logistical support he can muster. Three aircraft carriers, 450 combat aircraft, 30,000 troops, 250 cruise missiles, loads of smart bombs and bunker busters are in the Persian Gulf.

No date has been selected for D-day, but it is only days or weeks away; the Administration is unwilling to tolerate diplomatic impasse much longer. A top-ranking Iraqi suggests an eleventh-hour pitch directly from the U.S., like Secretary of State James Baker's January 1991 meeting with Iraq's Tariq Aziz, might yet forge a settlement. But the U.S. has made no such overture, nor did Baker's effort avoid war.

If the attack comes, the U.S. will unleash an intense, compressed air war--24 hours a day for nearly a week. First, fighters would knock out Iraq's command centers, communications facilities and air-defense network. Follow-on waves would target the sites where Saddam is suspected of hiding missiles and biochem material and equipment to manufacture them; planners want to destroy as much of Iraq's weapons capability as they can find. Other assault teams would batter Saddam's Republican Guard and elite security forces.

Adiplomatic compromise would at best postpone such a reckoning. Yet when the dust of an attack cleared, the outcome might feel singularly unsatisfying. The U.S. would be lucky if it could destroy some of Iraq's lethal weaponry while keeping the international coalition signed on to continued sanctions. But Saddam and all the problems Iraq raises would still be with us. "We face a new cold war in the gulf," says Middle East expert Anthony Cordesman. The U.S. can't end its confrontation with Saddam by force, nor can it withdraw, nor can it ignore the threat. As long as he endures, the U.S. is in the gulf to stay.

--Reported by William Dowell/U.N. and Mark Thompson and Douglas Waller/Washington

In TIME This Week

Cover Date: February 16, 1998

The Press And The Dress
Drip Drip Drip
Behind The Scenes With Monica
Just An Affectionate Guy
Ain't We Got Fun
Time To Off Saddam?
With A Little Help From His Friends
Eyes On The Oval
The Art of the Leak
Inside the Magic Bubble
Give Me a Break!

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