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Central Asia/Russia

THE ROVING EYE
Bush vs Saddam: The empire strikes back

By Pepe Escobar

PARIS - It may be a geopolitical "window of opportunity". In Washington's calculations, Saddam Hussein has to go. As soon as possible. The devil, as usual, is in the details.

Geopolitician Francois Lafargue, professor at the Paris Group School of Management, sheds some light on how Washington's view of Iraq and its leader changed from Bush father to Bush son. "Since 1980, Washington has had only one objective - to destroy the emerging powers of the region, Iran and Iraq. Beyond the theological squabbles between Sunnis and Shi'ites, the main political issue in the region is the role of Saudi Arabia. Shi'ites as a whole deny the legitimacy of the House of Saud - which considers itself to be the guardian of the sacred places of Islam. That's why Saudi Arabia in the 1990s was one of the main advocates in favor of Saddam Hussein remaining in power."

The main groups of the Iraqi population are 20 percent Sunnis, 55 percent Shi'ites and 25 percent Kurds. During a Kurd rebellion 11 years ago, the aim was to establish an independent state north of Iraq. An independent Kurdistan would be oil-rich, and thus capable of financing other Kurdish independent movements, especially in Turkey.

This was the immediate post-Gulf War period in the early 1990s. Although George Bush senior had stigmatized Saddam Hussein as "the new Hitler", the last thing that Washington had in mind at the time was a fragmentation of Iraq and the rise of an independent Kurdistan.

Washington privileged the territorial integrity of Turkey against Kurdish aspirations. No wonder. Turkey is the leading army in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization after the US. It is an essential strategic ally. Turkey offers the US strategic bases such as Incirlik, listening posts that cover the whole Caucausus, and it also controls access to the Black Sea.

Lafargue points out that "a democratic Iraq would most probably imply a Shi'ite Arab in power [because they constitute the majority of the population]. This would be an untenable situation to the monarchies of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, because a Shi'ite power in Baghdad could find many common grounds with Iran, where two-thirds of the population is Shi'ite".

This was the post-Gulf War scenario. In the post-Afghan War scenario, Washington's Iraq approach is something completely different. It is a two-pronged strategy, as Asia Times Online has learned. The first part is already in place: it could be designated as the "diplomatic solution". It involves renewing United Nations sanctions against Iraq, and demanding total access all over Iraq to UN nuclear-weapons inspectors. European diplomats widely agree that this "solution" will inevitably fail. The road in this case would be open to the much-preferred "military solution".

The UN Security Council meets in May to renew the already harsh sanctions against Iraq. But Washington does not want to wait until May. Already in mid-December 2001, the headquarters of the US 3rd Army was moved to Kuwait. And the target-planning activity in ultra-high-tech Prince Sultan airbase near Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, has been nothing short of frenetic.

The White House and the Pentagon have been actively considering a "variety of options" - according to Secretary of State Colin Powell - to get rid of Saddam Hussein. Powell recently told the Senate that the US has no plans to start a war - at least for the moment - against two of the other "evils", Iran and North Korea. But the breathing space allowed President Seyed Mohammad Khatami and Great Leader Kim Jong-il does not apply to Saddam Hussein.

Most of Washington is still in love with the "Afghan solution": a quick and easy "victory" with practically no loss of American lives. The fact that this "victory" means that Osama bin Laden, all of the al-Qaeda leadership and all of the Taliban leadership are still alive, well and on the loose obviously is not taken into account.

Applied to Iraq, the "Afghan model" - Northern Alliance "freedom fighters" supported by US Special Forces and overwhelming aerial supremacy - has led the Pentagon to build the ideal scenario of an Iraqi nationalist - and Kurdish - uprising against Saddam, supported by the US agents who have been roaming northern Iraq gauging possible Kurdish support for this American-incited revolt.

A key player in the uprising will be the Iraqi National Congress (INC) - the opposition in exile. But the INC remains extremely disorganized, and is essentially controlled by a bunch of gangsters. The INC has been receiving a lot of attention in Washington lately, but still no promise of military training.

According to one particular Pentagon scenario, Kurds, Iraqi Shi'ites and at least 100,000 US troops would be involved in an also two-pronged invasion of Iraq. Half of the US troops would invade from the mini-Kurdistan area set up in northern Iraq, and the other half would invade from Kuwait - everybody of course supported by hellish aerial firepower.

The idea, though, is not exactly feasible. The US 3rd Army commander, Lieutenant-General Paul Mikolashek, has already said he would need between 150,000 and 200,000 combat troops, plus another 200,000 for support and logistic operations. Military analysts agree the whole operation would need close to 500,000 troops - roughly the equivalent used during the Gulf War. The "street" in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan - not to mention Syria, Lebanon and everywhere else in the Middle East - would certainly go mad.

It took the greatest armada ever almost two weeks to establish "aerial supremacy" over a bunch of bearded mullahs with walkie-talkies. Saddam Hussein's is no ragtag medieval army. According to the latest data, it may have 350,000 combat troops, 2,700 tanks, 90 fighter jets and 100 helicopters. Most of the troops, though, are no more prepared than fleeing Taliban.

The cream of the crop are 50,000 soldiers in seven Republican Guard divisions, and 26,000 Special Guards - tribals recruited by Saddam Hussein in his native Tikrit. These people hold 1,200 Russian T-52 tanks, and actually get paid: four times the salary of a regular soldier. They also can lay their hands on 300 mobile anti-aircraft missile launchers - recently paid for with oil money: sanctions or no sanctions, smuggling remains an extremely prosperous industry between Iraq and neighbors Turkey, Syria and Jordan.

Saddam Hussein is not just sitting and waiting to be on the receiving end of American wrath. Lafargue says that in 2002, Iraq will export 560 million barrels of oil - two-thirds of its production in 1990. "Some of the revenue is deposited into accounts managed by the UN, but the war machine is back in place thanks to smuggling. And the international embargo was ineffective."

Iraq, little by little, is coming back from isolation. Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri will meet UN Secretary General Kofi Annan next week in New York. Contemplating the perspective of American strikes, Iraq is now apparently interested in renewing dialogue with the UN.

Meanwhile, US Vice President Dick Cheney will personally advance the groundwork for the military solution. This month he will visit three key Iraqi neighbors - Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Jordan - plus Britain, Egypt, Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar and Oman. Cheney's targets: to muster political support and occasional access to airbases, essential for the whole operation.

The "Afghan General", Tommy Franks, head of the US Central Command and most certainly the man in charge in the case of an attack against Iraq, said that the Pentagon has not opted for a military plan - yet. Sources in Brussels assure Asia Times Online that the Pentagon would need at least a few months to wrap up the New Afghan War and start the New Iraqi War. There are insistent rumors in diplomatic circles that a strike against Iraq could happen as early as May. In this case, it will follow the Taliban spring guerrilla incursions against the Hamid Karzai regime in Kabul. The US is already bombing eastern Afghanistan in an effort to prevent a buildup of opposition forces there.

George W Bush and the Pentagon may be itching to reduce one-third of the axis of evil to rubbish. But first they must consider three crucial issues. 1) A mad-as-hell Saddam Hussein may decide to unleash his fabled "weapons of mass destruction" against Americans - and Israelis - if he is attacked at home. 2) No one can tell for sure how many American ground forces are needed: the figure of almost 500,000 is considered exorbitant, and it would take months to assemble. 3) Turkey, the key US ally, is terribly worried about the possibility of an independent Kurdistan rising from the ashes of the Saddam Hussein regime and destabilizing the whole region.

To top it all: everybody and his neighbor cannot begin to imagine the fallout from a huge US military operation right "at home". But this is peanuts when you're sitting on top of an unlimited military budget, and you're on a mission of Good against Evil.

((c)2002 Asia Times Online Co, Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact ads@atimes.com for information on our sales and syndication policies.)



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