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U.S. Increases Economic, Political Pressure on Iraq

By Robin Wright
Los Angeles Times
WASHINGTON

In a major effort to accelerate the downfall of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, the Clinton administration has launched a series of steps to tighten the economic and political squeeze on Baghdad.

The two-track U.S. strategy centers on beefing up international opposition to Hussein's regime while trying to further erode his internal base, particularly within his strife-riddled family, officials said. Potential candidates for defection have already been identified.

"We hope insiders will be inspired by what they see happening outside," a senior U.S. official said Saturday.

The administration's leverage is greater now than at any point since the triumphal windup to the 1991 Persian Gulf War because U.S. intelligence proved right on Iraq's secret weapons programs - and the prestigious International Atomic Energy Agency and United Nations were wrong.

But key U.S. officials say they are under no illusions about their ability to orchestrate events in Iraq. In a sobering assessment, the administration has concluded that the recent defection of major Iraqi officials and Baghdad's sudden burst of cooperation with the United Nations does not necessarily signal the beginning of the end for Hussein.

Even in the event of his political demise, new leadership is likely to amount to little more than "Saddamism without Saddam," the replacement of one ruthless military leader by another, some observers say.

But at that point, the administration argues, the foundation of any new regime will be so weakened that the United States and its allies might be able to influence the course of events, and open the way to real change.

The administration's goal is to "deepen the panic" that has beset the inner circle since the Aug. 8 defection of Gen. Hussein Kamel Hassan Majid, along with several other family members and friends of the Iraqi leader.

Covert broadcasts by opposition groups, such as the CIA-funded Iraqi National Congress based in Kurdish northern Iraq, are scheduled to increase, as will the activities and visibility of all exiled groups and figures, including Majid, U.S. officials said.

The administration has also moved to prevent Hussein from re-exerting control over the Kurdish north and Shiite-dominated south. At talks outside Dublin, Ireland, earlier this month, U.S. officials mediated a cease-fire between warring Kurdish parties so they could focus on Baghdad rather than each other.

And joint U.S.-Kuwait military maneuvers in the Persian Gulf that began last week have shored up the southern zone from which Iraqi warplanes and elite troops are banned.

The burst of U.S. diplomatic energy comes in the wake of revelations that Iraq was covering up programs to develop ballistic missiles as well as nuclear, chemical and biological arms - bearing out the fears of U.S. intelligence experts and proving the United Nations and IAEA wrong.

At the United Nations, the administration is now re-asserting its leadership to block indefinitely French and Russian attempts to ease economic sanctions imposed during the Gulf crisis. Some officials say Baghdad stands no chance of a reprieve before 1997.

In the Middle East, Washington is orchestrating a series of moves to tighten the stranglehold on the Iraqi economy, mainly by engineering a rapprochement between Jordan and the monarchies in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Jordan had backed Hussein during the Gulf War.

Trade contacts are expected, including an agreement by one or more of the Gulf regimes to provide Jordan with oil at the same discounted rates it paid to Iraq.

The overall thrust is to intensify the squeeze and end the four-year political impasse that has allowed Hussein not only to rebuild his regime, but to threaten his neighbors again. One of Majid's revelations was that Baghdad had plans to attack Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

Even if Hussein were ousted, Iraq's political climate is so volatile that the nation's future would remain uncertain. But if the administration's efforts do play a part in toppling the Iraqi leader, his successor would have to take note.

Specifically, the United States could push the new regime to widen its political base by allowing exiles to return and honoring a 1975 treaty on Kurdish autonomy.