After Saddam, What Next?

Once the Iraqi tyrant has been toppled -- as President Bush seems intent on doing -- filling the vacuum in Baghdad may not be all that hard

By Stan Crock

When President Bush declared in a June 1 speech at West Point that he would preempt possible attacks on the U.S., he seemed to be sending a clear message to Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein: You're high on my hit list.

Of course, Bush has been suggesting this for months -- and nothing has happened. In addition to working out the logistics of a military operation with a clear objective, another major concern has been the fate of Iraq if Saddam were ousted. Indeed, the conventional wisdom is that any military campaign to oust the brutal dictator would be easier than the peace that follows.

That's what weighed on the mind of President Bush's father 11 years ago, when he decided not to march U.S. troops to Baghdad after annihilating Iraq's military. Back then, Bush and his national security advisers feared that all hell would break loose in the country, and the region, if Saddam were out of the picture.


  The opposite may be true today. One person who isn't that worried about the post-Saddam era is one of the world's leading experts on Iraq: Amatzia Baram, a professor at Haifa University. In a presentation earlier this year at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, he laid out several possibilities for Iraq, none of them all that fearful, really.

Look at what has happened in Afghanistan as an indication of Iraq's possible future. Despite some continuing dustups among regional warlords, Afghanistan has proved more peaceful since the collapse of the Taliban regime than anyone had a right to expect -- especially under a transition government crafted in distant Germany. And things are likely to improve after the tribal elders gather for the loya jirga and establish a broader-based government to be created in Kabul, rather than Bonn.

It will be critical to create a government in post-Saddam Iraq that also is broadly representative of its many constituencies. These include the Sunnis near Baghdad, the Shiites in the south, the Kurds in the north, opposition forces inside and outside the country, military officers with no firm allegiances to Saddam, and tribal leaders, who have increased their importance in recent years. The U.S. already is planning conferences so that many of these groups can meet. This is hardly an easy task, but the experience in Afghanistan suggests it's not only possible, but plausible.


  Baram doubts that Iraq would disintegrate, as some of its neighbors fear. That's because, while Sunnis are concentrated near Baghdad, the city is still 70% Shiite -- and the Shiites probably wouldn't break off from such a critical center of population, industry, services, and government administration. While the Shiites are sympathetic to their brethren in Iran, they are Iraqis first, Baram says. Meanwhile, the minority Sunnis who dominate the government also want a united Iraq, Baram adds.

It's always possible that the military would try to fill the vacuum in the short term -- and that might not be such a bad thing. Despite its complicity with Saddam, the military remains the most respected institution in the country, Baram says, and could maintain stability.

The task for the U.S. would be to befriend the officers who take over and try to pave the way for elections. It's plausible that a military regime in Iraq could have good relations with America. Saddam himself did during the Iran-Iraq War. And if the postwar Afghanistan experience is any indication, links to the U.S. aren't inevitably the kiss of death they used to be in the region. Liberated Iraqis could be every bit as grateful as liberated Afghans have been.


  While Afghanistan may provide a model for the peace, it's unlikely to offer a blueprint for the war. Here the plot thickens. While there's little doubt about the outcome, the operation to oust Saddam may be harder than Desert Storm and more complicated than winning the peace in Afghanistan. For one thing, the U.S. isn't likely to rely as much on locals, as it was able to do with the Northern Alliance.

An Air Force captain I spoke with recently about possible military plans for Iraq says an operation could be mounted with about 75,000 ground troops -- if the U.S. can use Kuwait's Camp Doha and several air bases in the region, including Turkey's Incirlik, Qatar's Al Udeid, and Kuwait's Al Jaber and Ali al-Salem. Aircraft carriers also could help.

If Saudi Arabia declines to provide base access, any drive to oust Saddam would be more difficult. Still, with equipment already in place, the captain thinks it would be possible to gear up a potent force of tanks in a couple of weeks.


  Is this wishful thinking? Maybe, but probably not. While the U.S. armed forces are steadily getting better, the Iraqi military, which proved largely ineffective in Desert Storm, lost 40% of its army and air force during that conflict. The remaining army units are at less than 50% combat effectiveness. Iraq used to import $3 billion a year in arms, but since 1992, it has imported a total of $400 million worth, according to the Air Force captain.

Besides, the Pentagon won't take chances. A larger force than 75,000 ground troops is likely. "Failure is unthinkable," says Geoffrey Kemp, director of regional strategic programs at the Washington-based Nixon Center. "That requires a massive, massive military operation that will take months and months to get ready for." Kemp would opt for 200,000 ground troops.

Whatever the size of the force, the first item on the U.S. agenda would be the use of air power to knock out command-and-control centers and air-defense capabilities. Then the ground troops could move in, trained and equipped for any contingency, including Saddam's possible use of chemical or biological weapons. If that were to happen, most of the damage would be inflicted on local civilian populations -- and on Saddam's standing internationally, since he would be proving President Bush right about the threat he poses.


  Instead of putting his forces out in the open, where precision munitions could knock them out quickly, Saddam is likely to keep them in Baghdad. Here the scenarios get dangerous. The result could be the kind of house-to-house combat Israeli soldiers faced in Jenin. But U.S. Marines in particular have been conducting exercises to improve their ability to mount such operations.

Even if many Iraqi soldiers surrender in the fighting, U.S. casualties could mount. And civilian casualties are assured -- indeed they are the goal if Saddam is to win the propaganda campaign. It will be up to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to do a better job than the Israelis of explaining who is really to blame for such civilian deaths. It is Saddam who would not be complying with the Geneva conventions by failing to separate noncombatants and soldiers.

The Iraqi strongman could complicate all this by lobbing Scuds into Israel, which may not be as willing to show restraint as it was during Desert Storm. And well before anything comes to blows, Iraq could agree to allow weapons inspectors back in. Instead of arguing that the U.S. is just enforcing U.N. resolutions by going after Saddam, Washington would be left arguing over whether a site could be searched and when -- a less compelling position.

Politically and militarily, ousting Saddam could be a bit dicier than other recent Pentagon operations. But if -- and it seems a good bet -- the outcome is roughly the same as that in Afghanistan, then the peace that follows may fare just as well.

Crock covers national security and foreign affairs for BusinessWeek from Washington. Follow his views in Affairs of State only on BusinessWeek Online

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.