REMEMBER… NEVER FORGET… – “The CIA’s Secret War in Iraq” (by Randy Stearns, feb. 1998)
“The White House”
If Presidents Clinton and Bush shared one foreign-policy fantasy, it was to live in a world without Saddam Hussein. Both the Republican president and his Democratic successor commissioned secret plots to eliminate the Iraqi despot, and for more than six years the CIA has struggled to carry out that task.
The Geopolitical Rub
The difficulty, however, is that even more than it wants to eliminate the Iraqi leader, Washington needs to maintain political stability in the Gulf. As a CIA deputy put it at the end of the Gulf War, “Our policy is to get rid of Saddam Hussein, not his regime.” Thus, nearly every time the United States reaffirms support for the democratic aspirations and human rights of the Iraqi people, it also restates the importance of maintaining the “territorial integrity” of the Iraqi state. Balancing the contending powers (Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Iraq) would be vastly more difficult if Iraq devolved into a motley federation of ethnic states.
To Washington, the prospect of a popular insurrection in Iraq has been far less appealing than the possibility, however remote, of a palace coup. In practice, that has meant publicly promoting popular resistance as a means of destabilizing the Iraqi regime, but all the while pinning U.S. hopes on an insider job. As a result, policy-makers anger at Saddam never overcame their fear of a power vacuum in the Gulf. “We recognized that the seemingly attractive goal of getting rid of Saddam would not solve our problems or even necessarily serve our interests,” former National Security Adviser Gen. Brent Scowcroft told Newsweek in 1996. “So we pursued the kind of inelegant, messy alternative that is all too often the only one available in the real world.”
“Push Came to Shove”
When Shiites in southern Iraq appeared ready to finish the job with a grass-roots revolt against Saddam in the spring of 1991, the Bush administration chose to step aside and permit Iraqi troops to regroup and crush the rebels with helicopter gunships. The alternative, as the White House saw it, might have been the collapse of Iraq and the rise of a new Islamic state bordering Iran. In March 1995 and again in the late summer of 1996, the Clinton administration faced similar dilemmas in northern Iraq. Rather than throw its weight behind a coalition of rebels with divergent allegiances to Iran and Iraq, and aspirations for an independent Kurdistan, Clinton chose to do nothing while Saddam’s troops invaded the “safe haven” and destroyed the CIA-backed opposition. Washington had grown impatient with supporting the political opposition and demanded that the CIA find a way to get rid of Saddam before the 1996 presidential elections. The upshot was that neither popular political resistance nor quick-fix coups were successful and Saddam remained in power. Four days after Saddam’s attack on the northern city of Arbil in August 1996, the president decided to launch a cruise-missile attack not on the invading armies in the North, but on Iraqi radar installations 500 miles to the south. To Saddam and other Gulf state leaders, the message seemed clear: United States policy toward Iraq remains mired in indecision and a fundamental unwillingness to back its ertswhile allies inside Iraq.
Meanwhile, the 7-year-old Gulf War coalition continues to erode and Washington faces repeated crises over Iraqi intransigence.
Unable to kill Saddam with conventional military might during the Gulf War, the Bush administration ordered the CIA to find covert means to bring down the Iraqi dictator. Their efforts helped spark at least one major uprising, two bloody Iraqi reprisals and one failed coup. Today, the agency finds itself back at square one, with Saddam’s power as entrenched as ever and opposition forces bowed but unbeaten; the only thing that has changed, perhaps, is that all parties in the Middle East are a bit more suspicious of America’s resolve.
“Both Barrels Backfired”
In 1991, the CIA swung into action, spending roughly $20 millions on anti-Saddam propaganda and at least $11 million in aid to various Iraqi opposition groups in London and Kurdistan. The agency pursued two parallel, but not necessarily compatible, strategies for ousting Saddam. It first supported the Iraqi National Congress, a popular political opposition group led by Ahmed Chalabi. The INC tended to move faster than its American sponsors anticipated, recruiting an independent army and temporarily uniting Kurdish factions behind a planned attack on Saddam’s forces. By late 1994 CIA field operatives had set up a base in the northern city of Salahuddin and had begun actively directing military activities. Top CIA and White House officials, however, doubted that the INC could bring down Saddam and were anxious about their ability to control the Kurds. They preferred a second alternative, focused on a group of exiled Iraqi military officers based in London called the Wafik, or Accord. Accord leaders promised Washington that it could pull off a “zipless coup” to bring down Saddam without dismantling the Iraqi state.
Former CIA field agent Warren Marik worked with the INC in northern Iraq from September 1993 until his retirement in January 1997. He still believes that what the agency was doing there was the right thing. Given more time and consistent support from Washington, he believes it would have not only succeeded in bringing down Saddam, but it might also have created the conditions for a democratic society in Iraq. The Clinton White House simply “got too impatient with a genuine effort to install democracy,” Marik told The Washington Post last June. It turned instead to fighting Saddam with former Iraqi generals who hoped to take his place. It’s a mistake that Marik hopes the White House and CIA won’t repeat after the debacle of September 1996.
Iraqi National Congress
The Iraqi National Congress is partly a creation of the CIA, which provided it with its name and more than $12 million in covert funding between 1992 and 1996. The organization’s leader is Ahmed Chalabi, an exiled Shiite Muslim banker from Baghdad, whose ties to Iraqi Kurds date back to the 1970s. After the Kurds elected a new regional parliament in northern Iraq in spring 1992, Chalabi organized the opposition’s various religious and ethnic factions into a coalition government. The CIA saw it as a potential ally in its propaganda campaign against Saddam and helped the INC build a radio and television station in the North.
Washington publicly endorsed the INC as a democratic alternative to the Baghdad regime and began covertly channeling $4 million annually to Chalabi’s organization. Privately, however, top officials in the United States doubted that the INC could either depose Saddam or maintain order among the volatile factions of the North. When Chalabi began building an army in 1993, American officials became concerned, but not particularly supportive. “The Iraqi National Congress didn’t have much military experience,” former CIA officer Warren Marik told ABCNEWS. “They didn’t fit into the coup mold that Washington had in their mindset. A year later, however, the CIA sent Marik [and other veteran field agents, money and materiel to support an INC offensive planned for March 1995. INC forces would retake the Kurdish cities of Kirkuk and Mosul and trigger a CIA-backed coup among Iraqi troops.
Chalabi’s strategy was to create a viable political and military organization by uniting the Kurdish factions and recruiting as many disaffected Iraqis to the INC as possible. He enlisted former Iraqi Gen. Adnan Nuri as a important ally, but the CIA later recruited Nuri to lead a rival opposition group based in London, The Iraqi National Accord. On the eve of the March 1995 offensive, Nuri flew to Washington and told the White House that the INC had tricked the CIA and was preparing to draw the United States into a new war with Iraq’something he knew the Clinton administration would avoid at all costs. Washington cabled Chalabi to inform him that the United States “will not support this operation militarily or in any other way.” The attack went forward, but quickly unraveled without American support.
Today, the INC continues to fight for a democratic, popular alternative to military rule from Baghdad, albeit without the help of the CIA. “We have learned the hard way that covert action that is not part of a large strategic political program is of no value,” Chalabi told The Washington Post last June. He hopes to work in concert with the United States again, “but our involvement with any covert agencies is finished.”
The Wafik, or Accord (officially the Iraqi National Accord) is a coalition of exiled Iraqi military officers now based in Amman, Jordan. Its members are openly dedicated to staging a coup in Baghdad to topple Saddam Hussein.
“The Quick Fix Option”
The Accord was organized by the British intelligence agency MI6 after the Gulf War. It gained support within the CIA’s London station later that spring as Bush administration officials looked for a way to get rid of Saddam Hussein. Among its leaders is Gen. Adnan Nuri, a former brigade commander in Saddam’s special forces. He joined the Iraqi National Congress in May 1992, but was recruited a month later to work secretly for the CIA within the Accord. “They said: “You work separate from the INC, but don’t resign from the INC”,” Nuri told ABCNEWS. Nuri later convinced the Clinton White House to abandon the CIA-backed INC only hours before it was to begin a March 1995 offensive aimed at toppling Saddam. By that time, President Clinton was already favoring the Accord members predictions regarding the possibility of sparking a coup and turning cold to the potential complications of a popular insurrection in Iraq. By the summer of 1995, Washington’s efforts concentrated on working with King Hussein of Jordan and the Accord’s new offices in Amman.
“How to Drop a Dictator”
After the White House opted for a quick-fix solution that might get rid of Saddam before the beginning of the 1996 American presidential campaign, the CIA worked to organize plans for a coup. The former Iraqi army officers and one-time cronies of Saddam that make up the Accord assured the Americans that they were in close contact with top officials still in Baghdad. These insiders would oust Saddam and take power, without bringing down the entire Iraqi state, they said. Although all the alleged coup attempts against Saddam have so far failed ‘whether organized by Accord members or others: the CIA remains hopeful. The Accord maintains a presence in Amman, despite King Hussein’s ongoing efforts to reconstruct relations with Baghdad. It broadcasts regular radio propaganda in Iraq and is actively recruiting new members.
Because they live in a nation that is not a state, Kurdish leaders have grown accustomed to seizing the opportunities history hands them. They’ve never succeeded, however, at gaining the political autonomy that has been repeatedly promised by the international community.
“Statehood by Stealth”
At the end of the Gulf War, amid exhortations from President Bush to seize the moment and rebel, Iraqi Kurds put aside their differences, took up arms and tried to topple Saddam Hussein’s government. They very nearly succeeded. But at that critical moment, the United States refused to back the rebellion and instead stood by while Saddam’s helicopter gunships crushed the rebellion. In the ensuing chaos, a flood of Kurdish refugees fled north to the border region of Iraq, Turkey control came in the form of a militarily protected “safe haven” for refugees in northern Iraq. The refugees culled opportunity from the disaster. They took advantage of coalition air cover to organize the first free regional elections in Iraqi history the following spring. Long-feuding rivals Jalal Talabani, head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), and Massoud Barzani, leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) agreed to split power following a close election in which more than one million Kurds voted. Within months, a regional parliament was established and the Iraqi National Congress was working with the CIA to oust Saddam.
“No Friends But the Mountains”
The Kurds seemed to have built the foundations of an autonomous state on the ashes of another superpower betrayal. But by 1995, lingering suspicions about the reliability of the CIA’s mandate and simmering disputes among the Kurds themselves caused the fragile northern coalition to unravel. The CIA enlisted the PUK and KDP in its planned assault on Iraqi outposts at Kirkuk and Mosul in March 1995. When the United States backed out at the last minute, Barzani withdrew his KDP fighters as well and the Kurds’ dreams of unity vanished in an escalating factional war. Seventeen months later, Barzani had allied his forces with Saddam and invited Iraqi troops to help “liberate” Arbil, while Talabani turned to Iran for help. The Americans once again decided to do nothing. While the United States and its allies had gone to war to protect Kuwait, Barzani later told author Jonathan Randal, the Kurds understood that no one was willing to accept an independent Kurdistan carved from the existing states of Iraq, Iran, or Turkey. Barzani insists that while the Kurds deserve a country of their own, it will only come as a result of generations of political struggle.
He’s been compared unfavorably to Adolf Hitler. But sticks, stones and armed rebellions do not seem to faze Saddam Hussein. The Iraqi dictator shows no sign of giving up power, despite the best efforts of the CIA and U.S. military. He’s endured the concentrated might of many nations during Gulf War, periodic cruise-missile attacks and punative bombings, numerous rebellions and coup attempts and yet his grip on power appears as ruthlessly certain as ever. “The truth is that Saddam Hussein is now stronger than he was since the invasion of Kuwait,” INC leader Ahmed Chalabi told ABCNEWS. “He is defiant, intransigent, and he is dangerous.”
“Thumbing His Nose, Consolidating Power”
And within the borders of his state, he is supremely powerful. Even though U.S. and European forces still patrol the skies over nearly two-thirds of the country, Saddam has been able to attack his internal enemies with impunity, crushing rebellions and rounding up suspected traitors with deadly speed. Some Iraqis undoubtably remain loyal because they admire their president’s defiant attitude and fierce confidence. But it’s reasonable to suspect that most simply fear his wrath. Since the end of the Gulf War, Saddam has crushed rebellions by Kurds in the north and Shiite Muslims in the south. He’s carried out a genocidal campaign against the minority Ma’dan Arabs, turning fertile wetlands into desert to deprive them of their homeland. And he’s arrested, imprisoned and executed hundreds, perhaps thousands of suspected traitors and participants in thwarted coups. Seven years after the Gulf War, Saddam Hussein remains a threat to this neighbors and the White House is preparing, once again, to bomb Iraq.