The Jerusalem Post

August 17, 1999

Stop ignoring Saddam

BY: Laurie Mylroie


It has been nine months since UN weapons inspectors were in Iraq. Yet the main US activity against Iraq has been bombing sites in the no-fly zones, which even US officials admit has no impact on Saddam Hussein's ability to reconstitute his proscribed unconventional weapons programs.


That is a danger which cannot be ignored, and addressing it is far more important than whatever Israel does with the Palestinians or Syria in the coming months.


Indeed, last week, the Barak government publicly revealed its concerns about the Iraqi danger. Its outspokenness stands in marked contrast to the Netanyahu government, which was strangely reticent about the Saddam menace.


Consequently, the Israeli public was left with the impression that the US was taking care of the problem, while most American Jewish organizations have said virtually nothing about Iraq.


The Gulf war is not over for Saddam. Indeed, when George Bush ended the war with Saddam in power, the Shamir government regarded it an error of such magnitude that it set out to assassinate the Iraqi leader. But a tragic training accident occurred, the operation was canceled by the Rabin government, and in the years since, the danger posed by a resurgent Saddam faded from our consciousness.


That danger should have been recognized after the August 1995 defection of Hussein Kamil, Saddam's son-in- law, who had overseen Iraq's unconventional weapons programs. It was learned then that Iraq had managed to conceal and retain significant unconventional weapons capabilities. But by then the Rabin/Peres government was heavily engaged in the peace process and the matter scarcely received public attention.


More than any other Israeli official, Ehud Barak has pressed the US to deal with the Iraqi menace. In December 1995, in his first trip to Washington as foreign minister, Barak raised the issue in very strong terms.


But the Clinton administration has consistently underestimated the threat posed by Saddam, maintaining that it was taking care of the matter. By that, the administration meant it would overthrow Saddam. In June 1996, however, Saddam arrested the Iraqi officers involved with the CIA in planning a coup.


STILL, the US had another option for getting rid of Saddam, but the Clinton administration carelessly threw it away.


The Iraqi National Congress represented the prospect of overthrowing Saddam through a popular insurgency. Backed by the CIA, the INC never received arms from the US; the Clinton administration didn't really want it to fight Saddam, lest he attack the insurgents and the US become obliged to rescue them.


In August 1996, Saddam marched some 40,000 troops northward toward the Kurdish city of Irbil, where the INC was headquartered. The US did nothing to stop them. It has provided the opposition with no support - financial, political or military - since then. The Netanyahu government said nothing about the Iraq menace, as the system of post-Gulf war constraints further unraveled. The Clinton administration did not want Israel to raise the issue, and Jerusalem went along.


It didn't even discuss the threat publicly at home. That's why Israelis panicked in January 1998, when former UNSCOM chief inspector Richard Butler said that Iraq had biological weapons that could "blow away Tel Aviv." But nothing changed. The crisis passed and Netanyahu reverted to deferring to the US on Iraq.


There are two ways to deal with the Saddam menace. One is to return UN inspectors to Iraq. That seems to be the Barak government's preferred strategy.


Others believe that will not work, and that Saddam must be eliminated.  That is the view of the US Congress, which believes the US should support a popular insurgency against Saddam.


Last year Congress passed the Iraq Liberation Act. Those who believe the Saddam threat is acute want a significant US military component in implementing the ILA. The US Air Force would support Iraqis fighting on the ground, while "safe havens" for the opposition would be established in outlying areas of Iraq.


Such regions could include Iraq's western desert. Freeing that area from Baghdad's control would put Israel beyond the range of Iraqi Scuds.


One would think that would be of great interest to Israelis. Yet the issue is scarcely discussed. That the Barak government has said there is a serious Iraqi danger is a welcome first step. But there should now be a full- fledged Israeli debate about how best to deal with that menace, while the signal should be given to American Jews that they should press the issue in Washington.


The writer is publisher of Iraq News, and, with Judith Miller, co -author of Saddam Hussein and the Crisis in the Gulf (Random House).