The Latest Threat To The Gulf: A Defeated Iraq

Defeated armies, when they come home, often make revolutions. In Iraq, survivors of the rout by the U. S.-led coalition have been joining uprisings by Shiite Moslems against Saddam Hussein. Saddam, who is more skilled at repression than warfare, may be regaining the upper hand over the insurgents. But the spreading strife throughout much of the war-torn south may mean he has lost the iron grip he once had on Iraq. Non-Arab Kurds in the north, inspired by the rebels' example, have been taking up arms as well.

The unrest is not all good news, however, for the U. S.-led alliance. While the turmoil might eventually help oust Saddam, who bases his power on the Sunni Moslem Arab minority, chaos in Iraq could destabilize the Middle East. Neighbors such as Iran, Turkey, and Syria would all be tempted to move into a power vacuum. And troubles in Iraq could delay a formal cease-fire with Baghdad and the withdrawal of coalition troops.

The rebellion also raises the specter of a pro-Iranian Shiite government taking power in Baghdad or, perhaps, in a Tehran-backed enclave in the south. "That would panic the Saudis, and the Iranians would come in," says William B. Quandt, a Mideast specialist at Washington's Brookings Institution.

NO WARNING. So far, Washington is trying to stay at arm's length from the storm. "The U. S. cannot micromanage Iraq's internal affairs," says an Administration official. Nevertheless, U. S. action, or inaction, will inevitably affect Iraq's fate. For instance, U. S. commanders in southern Iraq could have warned Saddam not to quash the rebellion, but they did not do so. In Washington's view, a weakened Saddam keeping order may be better, in the short run, than chaos. Saddam seems to be hunkering down with his closest associates in what may be a bloody fight for survival. On Mar. 6, he replaced his Interior Minister with his cousin, Ali Hassan al-Majid, who was responsible for the gassing of thousands of Kurds in 1988. For the Saudis, the U. S.'s key Arab allies, the preferred outcome would be for Iraq's military to seize control from Saddam. Riyadh shares a common Sunni heritage with the Iraqi officer corps and thinks it could be easily co-opted. Thus, General H. Norman Schwarzkopf's praise of the Iraqis' "very constructive" approach to the cease-fire may have been the start of such a courtship.

OBSTACLES. Iran, which aims to be a leading power in the postwar Persian Gulf, will play what cards it can to keep Iraq out of the American camp. For the first time since Saddam accepted Iranian peace terms in 1990, Tehran has taken the wraps off Iran-based Iraqi dissidents. On Mar. 4, Mohammed Bakr al-Hakim, a Tehran-based Iraqi Shiite cleric, publicly called on Saddam to step down and urged Iraqi soldiers to join the uprising.

The Shiites, however, will have a tough time gaining power over all Iraq. While they make up 55% of the population, they are mostly in the south. A Shiite leader would have little appeal in the Kurdish north or in the Sunni heartland around Baghdad, which traditionally dominates Iraq.

Instead, many observers say, the current unrest may prove to be merely the first of a wave of outbreaks spurred by the defeat and by growing economic distress. The sanctions are putting Saddam in "an impossible position," says gulf specialist Gary Sick. "If he tries to hold on, he is dooming Iraq to a slow and painful drying up."

As a result, the Iraqi people may face not only economic hardship but more bloodletting as Saddam's decline unleashes pent-up ethnic hatreds. Such strife, as Lebanon's civil war has shown, could be poison for the whole region.

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