WASHINGTON -- Three years ago, the man who is now White House counterterrorism chief drew up a plan for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. It was never implemented, but from today's perspective, the strategy devised by retired Army Gen. Wayne Downing for toppling a tyrannical regime has a familiar-sounding ring to it.
As presented to congressional leaders in a secret session in the summer of 1998, the Downing plan included several elements that have proved remarkably successful in Afghanistan. A former U.S. Special Forces commander, Downing believed that victory would be achieved through a potent combination of U.S.-backed insurgents, massive enemy defections, elite special operations units, and U.S. airpower.
Dismissed by Clinton administration officials as a recipe for a second "Bay of Pigs," the Downing plan has now become highly topical after the Sept. 11 terror attacks and his own subsequent elevation to a key White House position. The general's ideas have become a lightning rod for a new debate inside the Bush administration over what to do with Saddam, a durable and ruthless dictator who is widely believed to be developing weapons of mass destruction.
Supporters, who are believed to include Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and other key political appointees, argue that the Afghan war has demonstrated the feasibility of the Downing plan, or something similar to it, and that the moment for moving against Saddam is fast approaching.
Opponents, including much of the State Department, CIA, and professional military, say that the plan greatly overestimates the strength of the Iraqi opposition, and particularly the Iraqi National Congress, a London-based umbrella group that has established itself as a quasi government in exile.
In its original version, Downing's plan envisaged an initial commitment of no more than 5,000 or 6,000 "crack troops" to defeat a demoralized Iraqi army of a half million men, assuming that U.S. warplanes were available to destroy enemy troop concentrations. But more recently, Pentagon estimates of what it will take to remove Saddam from power are being sharply increased, according to administration and Iraqi opposition sources.
Bush administration officials opposed to an attack on Iraq have stressed the differences with Afghanistan. "They're two different countries with different regimes, two different military capabilities," Secretary of State Colin Powell said recently. "They are so significantly different that you can't take the Afghan model and immediately apply it to Iraq."
Military analysts point out that the Iraqi army is nearly 20 times the size of the Taliban army, with 10 times as many tanks. The Iraqi opposition has less experience fighting the regime than Afghanistan's Northern Alliance. Most worrying of all, unlike the Taliban, Saddam may well have chemical and biological weapons, or even a crude nuclear device.
White House deputy national security adviser Stephen Hadley said in an interview that the administration had done some "planning and thinking" about Iraq in the spring and early summer, but the activity hit "a pause," partly because of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. He said the president and his closest national security advisers were preoccupied with the hunt for Osama bin Laden and had not addressed the Iraqi question "in any systematic way."
"We have a lot of business on our plate," he said.
Nonetheless, the Bush administration has embraced the idea of regime change in Iraq much more publicly than the Clinton administration. The key question facing President Bush when he eventually turns his attention back to Iraq is whether this goal can be achieved at an acceptable political, military and diplomatic cost.
Even though it became the basis for the Iraq Liberation Act, the Downing plan was savaged by much of the U.S. military establishment, including officers of Central Command, or Centcom, which would bear responsibility for military operations against Iraq. Last year, then-Centcom commander Gen. Anthony Zinni derided the plan as a prescription for a "Bay of Goats" dreamed up by "some silk-suited, Rolex-wearing guys in London." In testimony to Congress, Zinni said he had counted 91 different Iraqi opposition groups, not one of which had "the viability to overthrow Saddam."
Richard Perle, a former assistant defense secretary during the Reagan administration and eminence grise of the anti-Saddam campaign, describes Zinni's comments as "outrageous. It is not easy to get allies (for such an operation) when you have the Centcom commander saying it can't work." Perle argues that the Afghan military campaign shows that it will be virtually impossible for Saddam to mass his forces without getting hit by U.S. warplanes.
Saddam's Iraq "is like a hornet's nest," says Michael Rubin, a scholar from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who has travelled widely in Kurdish-controlled sectors of northern Iraq. "And when you are dealing with a hornet's nest, you must either get rid of it or leave it alone. The worst thing you can do is hit it once or twice with a stick, stir up all the hornets, and then walk away."
Which, he adds, is precisely what the United States has been doing with Iraq for much of the last decade.
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