Raising the stakes

Clinton and Saddam head for a showdown

ANDREW PHILLIPS September 23 1996

Raising the stakes

Clinton and Saddam head for a showdown

ANDREW PHILLIPS September 23 1996

Raising the stakes


Clinton and Saddam head for a showdown


Our mission has been achieved.

—Bill Clinton, Sept. 4

The determination of the United States in dealing with Iraq should not be underestimated.

—Bill Clinton, Sept. 11

From self-declared victory to renewed crisis in exactly seven days. When U.S.

President Bill Clinton confidently announced that American forces had achieved their goal of slapping down Saddam Hussein with two quick volleys of cruise missiles, he clearly hoped that the issue would go away—and fast. He had a commanding lead in his fight for re-election, and the last thing he needed was a foreign-policy blowup to create potential difficulties. But Saddam, ornery and unpredictable as ever, refused to roll over and accommodate the electoral needs of the President. His forces fired several missiles in the direction of U.S. fighters enforcing the so-called no-fly zones in southern and northern Iraq. Never mind that the missiles had almost no chance of doing any damage: they were enough to prompt Clinton to order additional American warplanes and ships to the Persian Gulf, and set the stage for Round 2 in the United States’ latest confrontation with Saddam. At that point,

Saddam did a quick feint, telling Washington he was halting his at-

tacks. That left his adversary all dressed up but less sure where to go.

Clinton’s new deployment—what his defence secretary, William Perry, described as a “disproportionate response”—was also prompted by a torrent of criticism at home. The President’s early claim of success was ridiculed by both his political opponents and independent analysts, who pointed out that any situation in which Saddam regained effective control of the northern part of his country and decimated his opposition could hardly be described as an American victory. And so the President upped the stakes: he sent eight F-117 Stealth fighters to Kuwait, stationed a second U.S. aircraft carrier in the Gulf, and added two more B-52 heavy bombers in the region. That gave U.S.

commanders in the area the power, and the flexibility, to strike Iraq much harder at any time.

But if the United States hits again at Saddam, it will be attacking a leader who is stronger and more self-confident than at any time since the end of the Gulf War in 1991. By exploiting the factional fighting among Iraqi Kurds in the north, he extended his reach there and smashed the dissidents who had operated against him from what they thought was a safe haven. And in the Arab world, his stature has increased enormously, especially since the

United States has attacked him for actions he took within his own borders. In neighboring Jordan, where King Hussein’s government has turned increasingly against Saddam, popular support for the Iraqi leader is stronger than ever. “I have to be with Saddam on this one,” said Sate al Husari, an exiled Iraqi who has made the Jordanian capital, Amman, his home. “The Americans are so in the wrong that one simply has to be pro-Saddam.”

Saddam’s opponents are scattered. The once-bustling offices of the anti-Saddam exile group, the Iraqi National Congress, in an upper-middleclass neighborhood of Amman were abandoned last week. The Congress, a loose coalition of Iraqi dissident groups formed in 1992, suffered a crushing blow when Iraqi troops entered the Kurdish town of Irbil on Aug. 31 to help one Kurdish group

against its chief rivals. Saddam’s security forces took advantage of the opportunity to execute an estimated 100 of his opponents and arrest 1,500 more. The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency had supported the congress with intelligence and money, but when Saddam’s soldiers moved on Irbil, the CIA’s operatives in northern Iraq fled and the dissidents were abandoned to their fate. The United States sent its cruise missiles to hit Iraqi air defence systems in the southern part of the country, which is vital to the protection of Gulf oil supplies. But it did nothing to deter Saddam in the north, where he and his new allies in the Kurdistan Democratic Party now hold sway.

That was the focus of much of the harsh criticism directed at the Clinton administration last week. James Baker, who was secretary of state under President George Bush during the Gulf War, told a Senate committee in Washington that the United States had demonstrated a “failure of leadership” by allowing Saddam to move back into the north without facing severe reprisals. After the Gulf War, the United States and its allies declared a northern strip of Iraq to be a safe haven for the Kurds, and forbade Iraqi aircraft to fly north of the 36th parallel. But now, Baker said, Saddam has violated that zone with impunity.

“Iraq under Saddam Hussein only understands force,” he said. “And more to the point, it only seems to understand overwhelming force.” Clinton’s Republican opponents took up the chorus. Bob Dole’s vice-presidential running mate, Jack Kemp, chided the President for “vague and uncertain” goals in the Gulf, while one of Dole’s top foreign-policy advisers, Senator John McCain of Arizona, called Clinton’s Iraq policy an “abject failure.”

Independent analysts, too, faulted the U.S. response.

David McDowall, a British historian and author of A Modern History of the Kurds, said in an interview that the United

Return by Stealth


'he plane is called the Stealth, but it was no secret what U.S. President Bill Clinton meant when he dispatched eight of the F-117 fighters to the Gulf last week: he meant business. The dark, batlike aircraft is among the most fearsome in the American arsenal. Its unique ability to evade radar—thanks to its angular design and secret construction materials, which deflect transmissions—could allow it to get up close and personal with targets like the elusive Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein himself. De-

fence experts immediately assumed that the F-117s would be used for night attacks on Baghdad. The fighter’s fundamental purpose is to deliver heavy bombs with pinpoint accuracy in well-defended urban areas. Each $60-mi I lion aircraft carries two laser-guided “smart” bombs tipped with 2,000-lb. warheads—enough to take out a large building in a surgical strike. During the Gulf War, all strikes on Baghdad were handled by the F-117s— which flew 1,300 sorties without a single loss.

States has been “cleverly and skilfully wrong-footed by Saddam.” And Janice Gross Stein, a political scientist and Middle East expert at the University of Toronto, noted that the United States has once again found itself in the awkward position of having to respond to Iraq’s every provocation. “Clearly, Clinton put himself in a situation where he’s allowing Saddam to determine the timing of the next step up the ladder,” she said. “He’s committed himself to respond. [Defence Secretary] Perry said that not only will there be a response, but a disproportionate response, which really locks Clinton in1 to heavier attacks.”

I The forces the United States g moved into the Gulf last week 8 provide the firepower needed for such a response. The 44 cruise missiles used in the first wave of attacks against Iraq allowed the Americans to strike accurately and with no risk to pilots, but they do not deliver a heavy punch. Stealth fighters are able to hit much harder, carrying two 2,000-lb. laser-guided bombs capable of destroying so-called hardened targets such as Iraqi command bunkers.

At the same time, a second aircraft carrier will double the number of American fighters that can go into action over Iraq. Even though other U.S. warplanes are based in the area, mainly in Saudi Arabia, their host countries will not allow the Americans to use them to attack Iraqi targets for fear of a backlash at home. In fact, even Kuwait, which was saved from Iraqi occupation by the Americans and its Gulf War allies, came under heavy U.S. pressure before it finally agreed to allow the Stealth fighters to be based there.

Yet although the Americans had their striking force in place by week’s end, the outcome was far from certain. Saddam, who has made an art form of provoking the Americans and then ducking the inevitable punch , attempted once again to stall his opponents. His government declared on Friday that it would no longer challenge U.S. warplanes operating in the no-fly zones by firing missiles at them. And Perry set off on a tour of Middle East capitals to shore up the strained anti-Saddam coalition. Even if the Americans do not strike immediately, however, the situation is fraught for a president whose No. 1 priority is re-election on Nov. 5. Another, bigger confrontation with Saddam runs the risk of U.S. casualties or an even more negative reaction from other countries. As the U of T’s Stein pointed out late last week: “Any process which you can’t envisage the end of is a dangerous process to start.”