WASHINGTON -- The United States should weigh whether the people of Iraq would benefit from new leadership before moving to topple Saddam Hussein, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said Thursday.
"In Iraq we cannot afford to replace a despot with chaos," said Sen. Joseph Biden. "The long suffering Iraqi people need to know a regime change would benefit them. So do Iraq's neighbors, and the American people will want that assurance as well."
The Delaware Democrat's statement came as the committee held a second day of hearings looking at what's likely to happen if the United States succeeds in driving Saddam from power.
Committee members earlier heard experts predict that in such a scenario, the United States likely would have to spend billions of dollars to keep Iraq stable and soldiers may have to be dispatched to the Persian Gulf region for years.
Meanwhile, Iraqi media reported Thursday that Saddam's air force chief told the Iraqi leader that his forces were ready to fight and win if the United States invades.
A series of Iraq analysts appearing before the Senate panel Wednesday generally agreed that Iraq must be stopped from developing biological, chemical or even nuclear weapons.
But there were differences about whether a U.S. military invasion was the solution -- at least right now.
Morton Halperin of the Council on Foreign Relations suggested tightening the economic embargo against Iraq and providing economic assistance to states along its border to discourage smuggling.
Richard Butler, former chief U.N. arms inspector in Iraq, said the United States and Russia should make another joint effort to get Iraq to agree to serious weapons inspections. Inspectors have not been allowed to return to Iraq since 1998.
But Khidhir Hamza, an Iraqi nuclear physicist who defected in 1994, said it is unlikely inspectors could uncover hidden weapons-development programs.
"With no large, easily distinguishable nuclear sites and little or no human intelligence, it is difficult to see how any measure short of a regime change will be effective," he said.
Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney said a massive air, land and sea assault could dominate Iraq's military in 72 hours. He said Iraqi forces have been weakened since the 1991 Persian Gulf war and most of the Iraqi army doesn't support Saddam. 1/4
Former CIA director James Woolsey echoed that point Thursday, telling CBS' "The Early Show" he has no doubt this country could succeed in such a mission.
"The Iraqi military is at about 40 percent of what it was in 1991," he said. Woolsey said the United States spends "40 to 45 percent of what the entire world spends on the military, and to say that the United States cannot succeed in this endeavor, I think, is ridiculous."
But others warned that, if attacked, Saddam would likely unleash his weapons of mass destruction because he'd have nothing to lose with his own survival in jeopardy.
Even if the U.S. forces quickly topple Saddam -- something other analysts said shouldn't be taken for granted -- the United States will face the difficulty of trying to unite rival groups in Iraq into a stable, friendly government.
Analysts said that could require U.S. forces to remain in Iraq for years at a cost of billions of dollars. Any invasion and long-term U.S. presence would be widely unpopular in the Arab world, which could threaten then leadership of Arab states friendly to the United States.
"Even if the Iraqi people have a happy outcome, I believe that most people in the region will see this as American imperialism," said Shibley Telhami of the University of Maryland.
Secretary of State Colin Powell told Japan's foreign minister Thursday that no decision has been made on what action to take against Iraq, a Japanese official said on condition of anonymity.
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