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On Point

Remembering Saddam's Slow War


by Austin Bay
March 29, 2006


The latest quip accusation that the United States "rushed to war" with Saddam's Iraq conveniently ignores 12 years of combat, terror and crime.

Perhaps The Slow War -- Saddam's war against the U.N.-mandated sanctions and inspections regimen that halted Operation Desert Storm -- has slipped from public historical memory. It shouldn't, for The Slow War is the long, violent bridge connecting Desert Storm to Operation Iraqi Freedom.

From March 1991 to March 2003, Saddam fought The Slow War savvily and savagely, utilizing an array of political, military and economic ploys. Moreover, by early 2003, Saddam believed he was winning.

The Iraqi dictator had reasons to make that calculation. Recall the fall of 2002 -- and the growing realization that the entire post-Desert Storm sanctions regimen had withered. The curious lack of political will on the part of key Security Council members (France and Russia) to keep Saddam properly caged was increasingly evident.

What the world didn't know, and wouldn't learn until early 2004 when the Iraqi Interim Government began naming names, was how effectively Saddam had corrupted the Oil for Food program. Oil for Food, a program designed to provide food and medicine for the Iraqi people, had in fact become an insidious economic weapon in The Slow War, used to buy political influence and corrode the entire sanctions policy.

A recent article in "The Economist" quoted former Saddam crony Tariq Aziz as telling interrogators that Saddam had given France and Russia millions of dollars in contracts "with the implied understanding that their political posture ... would be pro-Iraqi." In other words, mass murderer Saddam was bribing his way to a political victory that would have reversed his battlefield defeat in Desert Storm.

A post-9/11 irony also encouraged Saddam's view that he was winning The Slow War: Al-Qaida used the presence of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia as a recruiting tool for terrorists. Those troops and support facilities played a key role in maintaining the sanctions regimen. The United States was in a strategic political bind. Remain in Saudi Arabia and enforce the U.N. Security Council resolutions sanctioning Saddam, or give superficial credence to al-Qaida's global agit-prop campaign that U.S. troops threatened Mecca.

Slow doesn't mean "not dangerous." Fighting The Slow War was tough duty, requiring fast reactions and quick decisions.

U.S. and British pilots patrolling the northern and southern "no-fly" zones over Iraq called their missions exactly what they were: combat missions. In 1997, I spoke with a pair of U.S. Air Force pilots who had been flying missions in the northern zone.

"We're painted all the time," one young captain told me. He was referring to Iraqi air defense units "painting" his aircraft with radar. The pilot's preferred response was an immediate volley of missiles and bombs to suppress Iraqi defenses. However, my chagrined source said the rules of engagement regarding the location of Iraqi defenses sometimes limited his preferred response.

Iraqis would position anti-aircraft weapons near a mosque or a school, and a counter-attack risked damaging those "peaceful" buildings. An off-target missile handed Saddam an easy and emotionally effective propaganda victory of the ilk, "See, the bad Americans bomb mosques and kill children."

Of course, the no-fly zone in the north was created to keep Saddam from committing further genocide against the Kurds, but an explosion and a crater make for great television images -- a sensational immediacy -- that obscured the terrible facts.

I argued in early 2003 that the Bush administration needed to end The Slow War with a victory. Enforcing the U.N.'s Desert Storm mandates mattered. Those resolutions demanded that Saddam end his depredations against ethnic and religious groups in Iraq (Kurds and Shias) and required him to end (completely) his weapons of mass destruction programs. He also had to destroy WMD delivery systems.

Though no WMDs turned up, Saddam failed to cooperate with the inspection regimen and was in violation of the other requirements. Besides, it was past time to pull the dictators' guns away from the heads of Arab moderates. Toppling Saddam began the reconfiguration of the Middle East, a dangerous, expensive process, but one that is laying the foundation for true states, where the consent of the governed creates legitimacy and where terrorists are prosecuted, not promoted.

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