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Bloomberg News December 13, 2001

Afghanistan War Seen as Model for U.S. Taking on Iraq's Hussein

By Paul Basken with reporting by Richard Keil and Stephen Voss

Washington, Dec. 13 (Bloomberg) -- As the U.S. looks beyond Afghanistan to the next battlefield in its fight against terrorism, a former Iraqi general is among those lobbying the Bush administration to start a new war against Saddam Hussein. Iraq's opposition forces can topple Hussein within a week without help from U.S. ground troops, said General Najib al Salhi, who commanded several thousand Iraqi soldiers before defecting in 1995. The U.S. need only provide political mediation, aerial bombing and humanitarian aid -- just as it did in ousting the Taliban government in Afghanistan, he said. ``It will be much easier to defeat Saddam, because the people of Iraq are ready to do that,'' Salhi, now living in the Washington area, said through an interpreter. ``If they lose this chance, it will not come back.'' Salhi, who said he has met with officials at the Pentagon, State Department and National Security Council, is among a growing number of voices urging President George W. Bush to make Iraq the next objective in the U.S. anti-terrorism campaign. He joins top administration officials and lawmakers, including Senate Republican leader Trent Lott.

U.S. allies such as Germany and France are counseling caution. And military analysts say Hussein won't be defeated as quickly as the Taliban.

``If it were that easy, it would have been done a decade ago,'' said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a Washington defense research group. ``Saddam Hussein has been perfecting his machinery of tyranny for a third of a century.''

Hussein's Arsenal

Hussein has an arsenal that may include biological, chemical and nuclear weapons. And divisions among Kurds and other opposition groups have limited their gains since Iraq's rout in the Gulf War a decade ago. Still, the calls on Bush to take on Iraq are getting louder now that Afghanistan's Taliban militia has been defeated and fighters from Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda organization are in flight or offering to surrender. The House International Relations Committee yesterday approved by a vote of 32-1 a measure declaring Iraq's refusal to admit United Nations weapons inspectors ``a mounting threat to the United States, its allies and international peace and security.''

Lott and former Republican presidential candidate John McCain of Arizona were among 10 lawmakers who wrote last week to Bush, saying it's ``imperative that we plan to eliminate the threat from Iraq.'' Bush has promised that the campaign against terrorism, sparked by the Sept. 11 attacks in the U.S. that he blames on al- Qaeda, will pursue all countries posing a threat to the U.S.

`They Have Been Warned'

``They have been warned, they are being watched, and they will be held to account,'' Bush said Tuesday in a speech at The Citadel, a military college in South Carolina. Beyond indications of interest in pursuing al-Qaeda members in Somalia -- where a five-member U.S. delegation was reported by Mogadishu radio to have met Sunday with local warlords and Ethiopian military officers -- Iraq has been the focus of most speculation.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and other current Bush advisers have advocated Hussein's overthrow since the Gulf War, when they served then- President George H.W. Bush. ``Given the passion with which I have heard them argue this point, I would be surprised, now that they are in power, if they didn't eventually get around to it,'' said Francis Brooke, director of the Washington office of the Iraq Liberation Action Committee, which favors Hussein's ouster.

`Not Indestructible'

Hussein ``is certainly not indestructible, and I think that one could develop a plausible strategy for replacing him'' using aerial strikes against his security apparatus, said GlobalSecurity.org's Pike. The U.S. Congress agreed three years ago to provide the Iraqi National Congress, an opposition group, with $100 million to train and equip rebels intent on removing Hussein from power.

The State Department contends the INC lacks grassroots support in Iraq and has resisted handing over most of the money. The department said the U.S. should be promoting exiled generals such as Salhi to foment rebellion within the Iraqi military. Salhi, who said he commanded 10,000 Iraqi troops before defecting, said the INC may contribute to the anti-Hussein effort if the U.S. makes clear its intention to help. The U.S. has been faulted by Iraqi opposition groups for abandoning them during previous attempts at rebellion.

Humanitarian Aid

When the U.S. is ready to act, it must first help factions within Iraq negotiate the form of a post-Hussein government, then promise humanitarian aid, Salhi said. Iraqi troops and security personnel -- even those close to Hussein -- will join the opposition, he said. Neighboring countries that now warn about instability will fall quiet, as they did during the Afghan war once they saw the U.S. was winning, he said. Yet when Secretary of State Colin Powell visited Germany, France and Britain this week he was warned about moving quickly on Iraq.

U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair has urged punishing Hussein with sanctions rather than military action in the absence of conclusive proof linking Iraq to the Sept. 11 attacks. Another concern for U.S. planners is oil. An Iraqi war would drive up prices by $3 a barrel or more at a time when the U.S., Japan and other economies are in recession, said Robert Ebel, director of the energy and national security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. An increase would likely be short-lived, and might even be welcomed by oil-exporting nations currently coping with low prices. ``The impact would be to bring a smile on the faces of OPEC, though not publicly,'' Ebel said, referring to the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. ``For OPEC, it would ease the problem it faces today.''

Copyright 2001 Bloomberg News