Target: Saddam

The goal is to bring him down this time, says David Kay, who led the first U.N. inspection team in Iraq.

By Jeff Stein

Published November 13, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

Here we go again. People are calling it "Dij` Saddam," expressing a weariness with the cat-and-mouse game the United States has played with Iraq's bully dictator since the "victory" of Desert Storm eight years ago.

Few Americans know how well Saddam plays the game better than David Kay, who led the first United Nations inspection team into Iraq in 1991. In a March interview with Salon on the occasion of the last "showdown" with Iraq, Kay accurately forecast that U.N. chief Kofi Annan's intervention with Saddam to defuse the crisis would be "worse than useless" in solving the long-term problem of neutralizing Iraq's secret program to build chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. That now seems self-evident to everyone but Annan and the White House, who continue to argue that the goal of another bombing is to go back to Step One -- inspections that only gave Saddam more time to build weapons.

Today Kay argues that the only solution now is to frighten Saddam's inner circle with a bombing strike so severe that they'll take matters into their own hands, "with a 9 mm bullet through his head."

We're heading into another bombing of Iraq. The answer may seem obvious, but what has bombing Iraq ever accomplished -- except killing ordinary Iraqis?

So far, very little. All it's accomplished is to make Saddam lose his fear of the military power of the United States. The attacks have only made him stronger politically, not hurt him militarily or economically. He thinks he can absorb this and kick the inspectors out and go right ahead and it won't hurt him very much.

What do you think Saddam's doing now to beat us again?

They're dispersing stuff that they think will be attacked. They can't move buildings, but they can move stuff inside that's vital. I went in right after one threatened strike in 1991 and the stuff we had been inspecting -- very expensive, very delicate equipment for making highly accurate centrifuges -- had suddenly disappeared into a grass field around one of their nuclear weapons sites. After the deadline passed without an attack, they moved the equipment back in. So they're very good at that. They'll also move antiaircraft guns onto the roofs of buildings, go through various blackout procedures and so on.

What are his other techniques for blunting the impact of an attack?

You can be very, very sure he's making sure that he's moving some of the stuff in ways that we can observe it, into areas where there are hospitals and schools, hoping and even inviting an attack, with the knowledge that if there's collateral damage it's a victory for him. I would also not be surprised if in the next few days you see the spontaneous movement of women and children into critical sites. In the past he's had them occupy the presidential palaces. It's a measure of his callousness that he'll use the death of women and children in order to get at the United States.

Is there anything different in the Iraqi preparations this time?

Primarily what you're not seeing is any fear of an attack. Saddam is communicating the message, "We're not afraid of the Americans." And for psychological and political reasons, he has to do that.

People are calling this crisis "Dij` Saddam." It does sound like the Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote.

Oh, yeah, except that it's not as funny. People also refer to it as a cat and mouse game, but it's only funny if you're the cat. As a mouse it's not so fun.

But why are we playing his game at all?

The only reason is that the alternative, which is to retreat, and to let him end the inspections without cost, and to admit we failed, is more expensive to the United States in terms of prestige and the credibility of the United States in the region. It's not that we have a super-winning hand. Anyone who thinks that military action will bring a clear victory hasn't been looking the past eight years.

So why, everyone is asking, are we going the bombing route?

Well, it shouldn't be the same this time. The strategy this time has to have three parts, and they're not easy. First of all, you do not want to attack just the identified weapons sites -- most of them will be empty anyway, so that won't buy you much. You do want to attack the security forces, the Special Republican Guards, the people who monitor the telephones, the terror apparatus which keeps people in line, and his ministers, who by the way are suddenly appearing in military garb. The reason you want to do this is two-fold: One, Saddam does worry about survival, and if his security people are seriously injured, Saddam will wonder if he can detect a coup. He'll have to worry about that rather than developing weapons of mass destruction to use against his neighbors.

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Why do we keep threatening him instead of acting? We sound like the three little pigs.

You want to give him time to stew about when and where an attack will come. And you want someone close to Saddam to conclude, "This guy is more dangerous to my health than he is providing benefits, so I'm going to pull a pistol and put a 9 mm bullet through his head, because my world may change in an instant flash."

So all the commentary about how little effect another attack on his buildings will have is missing the point?

That's correct. I have no doubt we will take down his infrastructure, his buildings, but that's not what really worries him.

But how can we get at his security apparatus? We failed in the past.

Government ministry buildings where the top level people work are easily identified and easy to strike. The barracks are in Baghdad -- and unfortunately they are in a residential area so it's not an easy strike. I actually hope they go after the places where they live, but again, they live with women and children and it's not a cost-free sort of attack. The ministry of the special security apparatus where they monitor telephone conversations is in Baghdad also, again near a residential area, but it's an identifiable building that can be struck. And its equipment can't be easily moved.

I thought we hit that before.

No, that was the Postal and Telegraph Ministry. The security apparatus echoes the calls through there from another building. And we've never hit that before.

Why not -- because we were tapping the lines ourselves?

Well, maybe, but probably because we didn't know about it as well before. It's become a much larger operation over the last eight years.

Let's say we take out all these important installations and even kill a handful of key security officials. Then what?

You've got to have a strategy for the morning after. You've got to lay out a political program that explains to the Iraqi people how they can get back to civilization once Saddam's gone.

What's wrong with just continuing with sanctions?

First of all, he's making $1 billion a year from oil even with the sanctions. Secondly, sanctions have decimated the middle class. Unlike the rest of the Middle East, Iraq has a middle class that's had extensive contact with Europe and the West. Not just a trader class, but doctors, scientists and technicians. These people are suffering, and I think we have failed them. We have not laid out a vision for them of how to get out of the hell that is Saddam. It's odd, because Bill Clinton is so good with words. But again, you want to bring pressure to bear that someone will actually take the action to get rid of him. Unless they understand that we're ready to reintegrate them into the rest of the world, why would they take the chance? They have to know we have our arms open.

What do we actually know about Saddam's chemical, biological and nuclear capability now?

Not much more than when we last talked, on the eve of the last strikes six months ago. The reason for this is that in eight of the last 12 months, there have been no inspections.

Can he hit back at us with those weapons? In Kuwait or elsewhere?

He has a terror capability, not a military capability. He can't stand toe-to-toe with the U.S. He certainly has the capability to launch terror strikes against civilian populations. The reason for that is A) the Scuds are inaccurate, so he has to aim at big targets like cities rather than an oil well, and B) the few aircraft he has, the odds of them getting through are low, and so he has to try and sneak in and hit a city. I think the odds aren't high that they would. The last time, when they had a bigger and better air force, the pilots chose to fly to Iran and sit it out. That would be the rational choice today.

And what kind of terror tactics would he likely opt for against us?

The odds are that he's propositioned some capability in the region. And in Africa, perhaps.

What should we be looking for to come out of this bombing? How will the American people measure its success?

What we should want is to break the cycle of talking about this subject every six months. It's boring to us, but it's humiliating to the administration to be at the end of a very expensive yo-yo, sending the ships and troops out and bringing them back. I also think it's necessary for Iraq to know that they'll suffer real punishment if this goes on.

I've never thought of you as a hawk, but you seem to be saying now we have no choice but to hammer Iraq, even if there are some casualties.

Yes, I think that's the only choice we have now. The only other choice is to admit that he's won and we're not willing to pay the price. Like we did in Bosnia, and then saw the tragedy of the mortars in the marketplace.

And you now feel this is a consummate evil that we have to get rid of -- no more negotiations?

I have no doubt at all. I'm as certain of that as anything.

But the White House keeps yammering that the goal of all this is to restart inspections. That sounds ridiculous to everyone.

Inspections are gone. That should not be the end game. The end game should be the replacement of Saddam. As long as he's in power, he's going to try to obtain weapons of mass destruction, not just because he likes to have them, but because he wants to be the big man in the Middle East. He wants the U.S. out, to control all the Middle East oil. He wants to lead an Arab Middle East. The ability to intimidate is all he needs.

So why does the White House keep talking about resuming inspections?

Because this White House doesn't think in a strategic sense, they think on a case-by-case basis. It's inherent in the president, who in his career overcomes crises and is bored by anything that is long-term. It's the "War Room" mentality of the campaign trail, that you overcome an adversary battle by battle. Well, the world is not like that. You've gotta understand the end game. The War Room mentality focuses on the crisis at hand, then it's over. I think that's why after every crisis the president starts dating again [chuckles]. He's won a battle, and indulges in any behavior he can. Until the next crisis.

Where will Saddam be over the next few days and weeks?

Probably in a different bed than we expect. Saddam is not a physically courageous individual. We have some defector reports on what he did during the last bombings -- he was apparently cowering in a bunker underground. Those are images that we want to get out more. I remember the first time I went into Iraq after the war in '91 and shopkeepers were whispering to me, "Why didn't you get rid of him? You had him in the basement." So the Iraqi people can understand those images. But I don't think we should waste a single bomb targeting Saddam. If you target the instruments of his power, believe me, he'll cower in the basement. You want the Iraqi people to do it themselves.

How do you see this coming out after three days, three weeks, or whatever of bombing? Will Saddam come out of his bunker, shake his fist and say, "See, I'm still standing?"

I think that's exactly right. The real danger is if the administration doesn't have a morning-after plan. The White House can declare victory, but it's not going to be much of a victory.

How will we know we've won?

When the Iraqi people act, and get rid of him themselves.

Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the coauthor, with Khidhir Hamza, of "Saddam's Bombmaker: The Daring Escape of the Man Who Built Iraq's Secret Weapon." He writes frequently for Salon on national security issues from Washington.

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