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February 26, 1998

C.I.A. Drafts Covert Plan to Topple Saddam


WASHINGTON -- The CIA has drafted plans for a major program of sabotage and subversion against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, U.S. officials say.

Four prior covert operations, involving everything from radio propaganda to paramilitary plots, have failed to dislodge the Iraqi leader, just as smart bombs, cruise missiles and stiff economic sanctions have failed.

The CIA's new plan, months in the making, must still be approved by President Clinton. That approval is by no means certain, and some of his key advisers are skeptical of the plan.

The debate over the need for new covert action has intensified in the last few weeks, with senior members of Congress openly calling for the CIA to destabilize Saddam. But some of the president's advisers consider the new plan no more likely to succeed than the agency's earlier efforts, and they are likely to argue against approving it, the officials said.

The plan, still in the draft stage, has not yet been put into final form for a decision by the president. The fact that officials are disclosing it shows the depth of their doubts.

The director of Central Intelligence, George Tenet, has told Clinton that the plan is risky, the officials said, and national security adviser Samuel Berger is skeptical of the CIA's ability to undermine Saddam.

The plan calls for enlisting Kurdish and Shiite agents to destroy or damage key Iraqi pillars of economic and political power, like utility plants or government broadcast stations, the officials said. At the same time, the plan calls for increasing political pressure on Iraq through propaganda programs like a "Radio Free Iraq" broadcast to Baghdad.

The plan aims to try to undermine Saddam by showing Iraqi citizens that he is not invincible, strengthening his opponents inside Iraq and trying to ignite a rebellion within his inner circle.

"This is not a propaganda operation," one senior government official said of the CIA's plan. "This is a major campaign of sabotage."

For the plan to go forward, the president must sign a written order, known as a "finding." If it is approved as now conceived, it could become one of the biggest covert actions since the end of the Cold War, costing tens of millions of dollars a year, officials said.

Since the Persian Gulf war in 1991, the agency has backed Kurdish dissidents in the north of Iraq, Shiite Muslim groups in the south, Iraqi exiles in London and Iraqi military defectors based in Jordan. These operations, which have cost about $100 million, have had little or no success.

Most recently, in August 1996, Saddam sent tanks into northern Iraq to destroy a CIA base staffed by U.S. intelligence officers and Kurdish agents, arresting and executing scores of Kurds.

But now influential senators -- notably John McCain, R-Ariz.; John Kerry, D-Mass.; and Arlen Specter, R-Pa., a former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee -- are calling on the agency once more.

"It may well be that a covert action or covert actions might succeed in deposing Saddam Hussein," Specter said Monday on the Senate floor. He said a covert action -- along with the establishment of an Iraqi government-in-exile, expansion of "no flight" zones to cover all of Iraq and a naval blockade -- could help "bring Saddam Hussein to his knees."

But the Iraqi opposition is fragmented, "plagued by divisions," in the words of Wafiq Samoraei, a former head of Iraqi military intelligence based in London.

"It is lacking in sufficient support in Baghdad-controlled Iraq to be a significant factor in internal politics in Iraq," said Kenneth Katzman, a Iraq expert at the Congressional Research Service and a former CIA analyst of Persian Gulf politics.

The diplomatic, political and economic structures that can conceal CIA officers and agents -- a U.S. embassy, a network of political contacts, a bevy of businessmen going in and out of the country -- do not exist in Iraq. That makes it exceedingly hard for agents to penetrate the inner circle surrounding Saddam, who controls tens of thousands of soldiers and spies whose sole duty is to preserve his power.

The two major opposition groups in exile, the Iraqi National Congress, based in London, and the Iraqi National Accord, based in Amman, Jordan, have been riven by dissent. The Kurds, the world's largest stateless ethnic group, have bases in northern Iraq but also are bitterly divided. Shiite groups in the south of Iraq, some with ties to Saudi Arabia, some with ties to Iran, have proven politically impotent in the past.

Covert operations aimed at subverting Saddam's government date back to the Bush administration. Immediately after the gulf war, President George Bush ordered the CIA to support a coup against the Iraqi leader. The Kurds and Shiites were openly encouraged to rise up against him. The opposition was crushed.

Then the agency supported the Iraqi National Congress from 1992 to 1996. The group achieved little. In 1995, after some key Iraqi military officers defected, the agency shifted its support to the Iraqi National Accord. But in the summer of 1996, Saddam's military and intelligence services crushed the small clique of Iraqi military officers working with the group and destroyed a CIA base in northern Iraq.

Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company

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