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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Overthrowing Saddam Hussein: The Policy Debate

Filed under: Iraq, Radical Islam, U.S. Policy
Publication: Jerusalem Viewpoints

No. 423   February 2000

The Search for a Response to the Problem

Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi dictator, has biological weapons capable of killing hundreds of thousands of Israelis with infectious diseases such as anthrax. These weapons could be delivered either by missiles, by small pilotless planes, or by infecting the passengers of a plane landing at Ben-Gurion Airport with less than an ounce of agent spread through the plane’s air conditioning system. Saddam also has at least several nuclear weapons that are missing only highly enriched uranium which he is likely to be able either to make himself or to buy this year.

Saddam is extremely brutal, ready to kill his own people, even his own family, without hesitation. He hates Israel and needs no excuse or reason to decide to kill as many Israelis as he can. While so far he has been deterred by Israel’s ability to retaliate against Iraq with nuclear weapons, no one can be confident that he will be deterred in the future, particularly if he feels he is about to lose power or be killed.

In brief, Iraq under Saddam is one of the greatest dangers facing Israel, and there is no reliable protection against this danger except to remove Saddam. If Israel does not do everything in its power to protect itself from this visible threat, it will have to answer to its citizens and to history if Saddam succeeds in killing a substantial fraction of Israelis.

At the end of October 1999, the National Assembly of the Iraqi National Congress (INC), the Iraqi umbrella opposition organization, met in New York City where more than 300 Iraqi delegates agreed on a policy of overthrowing the government of Saddam Hussein and the Baath party through an uprising of the Iraqi people supported by military force from the INC and any other source.

The INC leadership team is composed of Ahmad Chalabi, who has been the operating leader of the INC since its founding, representatives of the INA (Wifaq) and the two Kurdish parties, and three independents who support Chalabi.

It might seem that the obvious thing to do is to give the INC the help it needs to overthrow Saddam Hussein. However, a number of policy-makers believe that an INC-led popular overthrow of Saddam is impossible, and that if it happened it might well lead to some bad results.


The Political Base in Iraq for Overthrowing Saddam

There are four major parts to Iraq. The north is populated primarily by Kurds, who are a very fractionated community. The center is populated primarily by Sunni Arabs, most of whom have loyalties to various tribal groups and clans. (The center also includes Baghdad which has a Shia majority and many Kurds.) The south is primarily Shia and includes the city of Basrah and access to the sea. The west is essentially empty, with a civilian population of less than 50,000 people, including nomads.

While Arabs are a clear majority (75-80 percent), there is a large Kurdish minority (15-20 percent). The Muslims are divided between Shia (60-65 percent) and Sunni (32-37 percent) communities. There are also other smaller communities such as Turkomen, Assyrian, and others.

Ever since Ottoman times, the Iraqi army has been controlled by Sunni Arabs, although the great majority of enlisted men are Shia, who fought loyally against the non-Arab Iranian Shia forces because they identify as Arabs and Iraqis. Since Saddam is a Sunni it is possible to describe Saddam’s regime as a Sunni regime, but most Sunnis do not see the current regime as representing them, since there are no members of most Sunni tribes in the controlling group. The real power is held by men from Saddam’s relatively small Sunni tribe of Tikritis. (A good number of Tikritis also do not support the regime.) Most Sunnis will not feel compelled to defend Saddam and the Baath party unless they are attacked by a force that excludes Sunnis and is explicitly anti-Sunni, or which proposes to exclude Sunnis from a share in power, or to persecute them because of Saddam.

The professional military leadership is in a similar situation. They have been subordinated to Tikritis, and while they have important positions in the current government, they have not been immune from execution or torture. A number have already defected to the opposition. They do not feel a need to defend the regime, except against a force that is explicitly against professional military officers. Most of them would not choose to defend the Baath regime in order to prevent non-Sunnis from having a fair role in the professional military leadership (though some observers insist that the Sunni officer corps will still not accept non-Sunnis as top officers, or accept a government not headed by a Sunni).

Since Saddam came to power, one Iraqi in ten has been killed or forced to leave the country. Most Iraqis who remain have suffered a decline in living standards as well as a loss in freedom and dignity. This gives a certain plausibility to the INC claim that the great majority of Iraqis will support almost any alternative to the current regime whenever it is safe enough to do so.

In 1991 a widely broadcast message from President Bush called on Iraqis to replace Saddam. A popular uprising followed in Iraq that was gaining control of 11 of Iraq’s 18 provinces until the U.S. allowed Iraq to use its armed helicopters to put down the uprising. Some 250,000 Iraqis were killed by Saddam in suppressing the uprising. Certainly this is likely to have made them more cautious about rising against the regime in reliance on the U.S.

The INC view, based on its widespread contacts with Iraqis in and out of Iraq, is that most Iraqis believe that Saddam can only be overthrown if the U.S. decides to make it happen, and that there is no point in supporting an effort to replace Saddam unless that effort has U.S. support that will continue until Saddam is defeated. The INC believes that the great majority of Iraqis favor and will join in a U.S.-supported effort to overthrow Saddam, as soon as they see results and evidence of U.S. commitment.


Ahmed Chalabi and the Future of Iraq

Backing the Iraqi opposition would be almost unthinkable if it were not for its leader, Ahmed Chalabi, a person of extraordinary integrity, competence, and stature. Chalabi, 55, is from one of the leading traditional Baghdadi families of wealth, power, and connections. He was educated in the West (Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of Chicago) and is deeply imbued with Western democratic thinking and modern ways of doing business. On the other hand, Chalabi’s family connections with tribal, clan, and community leaders go back generations, and he has been able to form a coalition of such leaders.

Saddam’s long totalitarian reign has destroyed the modern civil and political institutions of Iraq. What Saddam could not destroy are the traditional attachments to family, clan, tribe, and ethnic and religious community, because those do not depend on formal organizations which can be penetrated or destroyed. The INC, and Chalabi’s vision of how Iraq can make a transition to decent modern government, are based on these traditional sources of social strength.

The INC was formed in 1992 when the CIA decided that a small political opposition was needed to put pressure on Saddam in order to improve the possibility of organizing a coup within the Baath party. They knew that the Wifaq, the organization they had been funding and working with up to then, did not have the political acceptability among Iraqis that they needed, because it was limited to Baathists, and they asked Chalabi to work with the Wifaq to start a new organization that they suggested should be called the Iraqi National Congress. They wanted a small, tame, political organization; Chalabi used the opportunity they provided to build a very broad-based and independent organization committed to using a popular uprising to overthrow Saddam, and even to build a 2,500-man military force which the CIA prevented from acquiring modern anti-tank weapons. The INC, led by Chalabi, also started newspapers and radio and television stations, and became a major center of opposition to Saddam in northern Iraq from 1992 to 1996, meeting with representatives from all strata of Iraqi society through the porous borders. During this time the INC was funded primarily by the CIA plus roughly $8 million from Chalabi and his family.

From 1996 to the end of 1999, when some Congressional appropriations for the INC were dispersed by the State Department for the National Assembly meeting in New York, the U.S. government provided no money to the INC – and even prevented it from raising money. Chalabi has used personal and family funds to keep minimal operations going. Meanwhile, the CIA has continued to provide funds to the Wifaq and to others whom the U.S. hoped would supercede Chalabi as leader of the opposition.

Saddam tried seven times to kill Chalabi while he was operating in northern Iraq. He failed primarily because the INC was more successful in penetrating Saddam’s secret services than Saddam was in penetrating the INC, which is the real test of the viability of an internal opposition movement. In August 1996 Saddam decided to throw the INC out of northern Iraq. He took the great risk of sending 40,000 of his best troops and 400 tanks to attack the INC in the U.S.-declared “security zone.” Despite weeks of warnings from the INC and a number of days during which Saddam’s force was an easy target as it headed north, the U.S. did nothing to stop Saddam. Instead it evacuated thousands of INC personnel and supporters by air, many to the U.S., to prevent their being executed by Saddam.

The U.S. officials, especially in the National Security Council and CIA, who made the decisions to cut off the INC, naturally became committed to the view that Chalabi was a villain, and they have been a major source of negative information about the INC in the U.S. government and elsewhere ever since. However, a number of CIA personnel who had been closely connected to the INC operation and have since left the agency are strong supporters of Chalabi, including James Woolsey, who had been the CIA Director until shortly before the CIA decided to drop the INC.

The reasons for the State Department’s and the U.S. administration’s opposition to Chalabi and the INC are complex. Some of the opposition reflects bureaucratic and personal considerations – especially in the CIA; part of it reflects the administration’s reluctance to increase risk of a crisis with Saddam at an inconvenient time; and partly it may be a normal reluctance to be pushed into a foreign policy initiative of the Congress. The State Department story about the opposition being divided and unable to account for its money is absurd. The startling thing about the Iraqi opposition is how well it has kept together since the INC was organized in 1992. Even when the KDP deserted to Saddam to fight its Kurdish rival, it did not deny the authority of the INC as Saddam’s opposition. In addition, all major Iraqi groups and individuals continued to support Chalabi’s leadership, and the original INC principles, despite a year’s effort by the State Department to install other leadership. All of this, as well as the superficiality of the conflicts and disputes within the opposition, was demonstrated at the INC National Assembly in New York in October 1999.


The U.S. Role and Policy for the Future

The U.S. government is now divided about Iraq. A strong bipartisan majority in Congress actively supports the Iraqi opposition’s program of trying to topple Saddam. The administration argues for postponing action, and continues to rely primarily on the policy it has pursued for the last eight years of trying to stimulate a coup against Saddam by military officers.

Part of the administration’s problem is that it cannot take even substantial first steps to overthrow Saddam without committing itself to go all the way to ensure his defeat. Any serious action requires cooperation from one or more of the other countries in the region, but these countries have to choose between accommodating themselves as best they can to Saddam or supporting his overthrow. After the failure of all U.S. efforts against Saddam since the Gulf War, Saddam’s neighbors have decided that they have to accommodate him until the U.S. makes a real commitment to his overthrow.

As a result, when the U.S. administration responds to Congressional demands for stronger action against Saddam, it can point to the objections of local governments in the region to the INC or to proposed measures against Saddam. While these local objections are real, they are primarily a reflection of the administration’s reluctance to challenge Saddam. If the administration changed its policy, so would the local governments.

If the administration decides to move against Saddam, it can choose to use a purely U.S. military effort or it can help the INC build a military force and use U.S. forces in support of the INC. This would take longer, but it would provide more legitimacy, better prospects for stability after the defeat of Saddam, and require a smaller U.S. military commitment.

It is uncertain how much an INC military force could reduce the amount of U.S. military force needed. If Saddam’s forces are as strong and the INC as politically weak and ineffective as the administration has been saying, then the U.S. would not gain much by waiting while the INC created a military force. If the INC is correct about the weakness of Saddam’s military, and about the INC’s own ability to create a military force if they are allowed the opportunity, then the only U.S. military support needed might be airpower and standby support.

Both uncertainties can be resolved by testing. If the INC receives the political support it needs to have a chance to build a force, U.S. military experts will be able to judge in six months or so whether the INC is on the way to building a competent force. If INC military units again attack Saddam’s army, as they did in 1995, we will find out whether Saddam’s army is more willing and able to fight a serious military force than it was in 1995.


How Much Military Force is Required to Defeat Saddam?

An important part of the U.S. administration believes that the U.S. should not support any Iraqi opposition effort to use force in removing Saddam unless the U.S. is prepared to commit enough U.S. military force to defeat Saddam, in case the other effort needs to be rescued, or in case the U.S. decides that it cannot afford to be discredited by supporting an unsuccessful effort. (The U.S. twice abandoned efforts to defeat Saddam that had begun because of U.S. encouragement.)

While “how much force might be needed?” sounds like a military question, it depends a great deal on political issues. If one believes that a U.S. attack on Iraq would cause even Iraqi military units who are not loyal to Saddam to rally to the Iraqi cause and to fight bravely and with strong motivation against invasion by the U.S., if one also believes that the U.S. public and/or political leadership will require that the fighting be completed in a few days with practically no U.S. casualties, and if there is no political reason for limiting the military preference to have too much force available rather than to take any chance of not having enough, then a very large U.S. ground force would be indicated. U.S. commanders are likely to recommend perhaps three or more divisions of ground forces which, with supporting forces, would amount to a commitment of 200,000 or 300,000 personnel. This would be a major mobilization requiring a number of months and very large expenditures, and there is little chance that it will be politically feasible.

On the other hand, Colonel Scott Ritter (USMC, ret.), who had a great deal of contact with Iraqi forces when he served as an UNSCOM inspector and during the Gulf War, and General Wayne Downing, former Commander of U.S. Special Forces, believe that not many more than the number of U.S. ground forces currently in the theatre, perhaps a ground attack force of some 25,000 men, plus U.S. airpower, would be more than sufficient to march to Baghdad and overthrow Saddam’s regime with low casualties and low risk of getting into serious trouble.

Such low estimates of how much U.S. force would be required are based on the following conclusions about the weakness of the Iraqi military, each of which is subject to dispute:

1. Most units of the Iraqi army and Republican Guards have become much less capable than they were in 1991 (when they were already less capable than in the Iran-Iraq war). Soldiers have received very little pay, and even inadequate food. Units have not been getting enough money or spare parts to maintain their equipment. Nor have they been given enough fuel and ammunition for adequate training. Very few army units have received the training necessary for serious mobile combat against a professional military force.

2. Few units of the Iraqi army are loyal enough to Saddam or to the regime to fight hard if they are attacked by a competent military force. Not only have there been defections, but other officers have sent word that they are ready to defect. The best evidence of the lack of loyalty of the army is that Saddam is unwilling to rely on it, which is one reason he does not make the effort that would be necessary to restore its fighting ability. Saddam relies on a few selected units of the Republican Guard, the Special Republican Guards, which are a constabulary, not a military force, and on the Fedayai Saddam, which is a special force commanded by his son that is not part of the professional military establishment and not capable of professional military combat. He has to keep his effective and loyal forces in the Baghdad area to protect himself and his regime.

3. Outside of the center of the country almost all of the army is deployed in small units at fixed bases. In 1995 when such bases were attacked by the INC force, they were defeated because nearby Iraqi army units did not reinforce the bases that were being attacked. The Iraqi army units are either incapable or unwilling to leave their bases to protect nearby units from being defeated. The Iraqi army’s lack of mobility means that a mobile opposition force that is large enough to defeat the forces at a single base can gradually overcome a much larger force spread through the area.

4. The Iraqi secret police and security agencies are unable to survive where they are not protected by the army. In any area where the people believe that the army has lost, or is losing, control to an opposition force, they are likely to rise against the regime and provide support to the opposition. This popular support would make the task of an opposition military force much easier.

In response, U.S. military recommendations will probably be made by a consensus of all services, which cannot overrule the views of the Army about the size of the ground force required for any proposed ground attack. Because of the Army’s rejection of the view that wars can be won by airpower alone, Army estimates of the size of the ground force required will not be calculated with great reliance on possible uses of airpower in support of the ground forces. Specifically, the Army will probably not be willing to rely on airpower to protect against even a slight possibility that a ground force unit could be endangered by the enemy massing troops against it. The Army is likely to estimate the enemy’s ability to bring his forces together at a critical time and place using the assumption that the Air Force may at some point for some reason be unable to seriously reduce the enemy’s ability to maneuver his forces enough to endanger some U.S. ground force unit. In many situations such a reluctance to take reasonable account of how the services can be used together can multiply estimates of the forces required.

There are a number of reasons why the U.S. military says and believes that a very large force is required for a prudent attack on Saddam. (i) If a small force is enough, doubt is cast on the Gulf War mobilization. (ii) If a small force is enough to overcome Iraq, which has one of the largest armies in the world, some would argue that the U.S. does not need as large a military structure as it has. (iii) Many officers are not comfortable assuming that the enemy is not as capable as U.S. forces. (iv) It may seem too much like racism to believe that a U.S. force can overcome a much larger Iraqi force. (v) Realistic analysis runs into deep Army/Air Force differences. Therefore, it may well be impossible to get the Pentagon to accept a reasonable estimate of the force required to defeat Saddam.

If the question is, “How much force does the U.S. need to mobilize in order to attack Saddam in a way that it is sure of winning and of minimizing casualties?,” a case can always be made for the extra insurance provided by a very large force if it can be made available. But a very different question may be more relevant. Suppose an emergency arose and it became urgent to defeat Saddam: Would U.S. airpower and a ground force of 25,000 troops be enough to expect to win easily? Realistic analysis suggests that the answer is “yes.” Whether the U.S. can afford to support an Iraqi opposition, despite the possibility that doing so could lead to the U.S. having to attack Saddam, is not the same question as whether the U.S. should plan to initiate an invasion of Iraq.


Can Saddam Prevent Defeat by Using His Weapons of Mass Destruction?

While Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) are a potential danger to civilian targets, or possibly to U.S. regional bases, they are very unlikely to affect military battles because Saddam does not have forces capable of delivering them effectively against mobile military forces.

Any program to overthrow Saddam runs the risk that if it is successful Saddam will “retaliate” with nuclear or biological weapons as he goes down to defeat. But this risk cannot be avoided by refusing to try to overthrow Saddam, because the longer he is in power the more nuclear and biological weapons he will have and the better able he will be to deliver them.

There may be objections to a policy of supporting an INC effort to overthrow Saddam that might not succeed, and if it did succeed might produce serious instability in the region. But if one asks what can be done to protect Israel and the U.S. from Iraq, it is not at all clear that these objections are enough. The main alternative – seeking a coup from within the military leadership – has already failed for eight years. It is hard to see why the chance of “instability” is worse than Saddam is. While there may be good objections to all proposals, the job of leadership in response to a grave threat is to implement the best action available. INC confidence that it can make a major contribution to Saddam’s defeat if given reasonable support in building its own military force has been rejected up to now primarily because of prejudice against the INC and bureaucratic overcaution.

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Max Singer was a founder and President of the Hudson Institute, and is the author (with Aaron Wildavsky) of The REAL World Order: Zones of Peace/Zones of Turmoil (1996), winner of the Grawemeyer Award for ideas for improving world order. He lives half the time in Israel and in 1975-76 was Managing Director of Mahon Tevel in Jerusalem.