On Point

Baghad, the Morning After

by Austin Bay

Baghad, the morning after. The morning after the toppling of Saddam.

What does it look like?

Sure, there's the TV feed. Shattered palaces, cratered airfields, perhaps a rubble-strewn baby-milk factory/bio-weapons plant, with Geraldo poking the debris.

But what about the political picture the morning after? With the hard shadow of Saddam and his Tikriti clique removed from power in Baghdad, what emerges in Iraq -- what else shows up in a post-Saddam snapshot of the Middle East?

Of course, we heard this question posed 11 years ago, as Iraqi troops smashed the post-Desert Storm Shia rebellion in Iraq's south and battled Kurds up north. The U.N. did not sanction a coalition-attack to topple the Iraqi government, at least if Saddam agreed to live with a series of tough restrictions. Even in the bloody chaos of March and April 1991, the U.S.-led forces kept that mandate to the letter.

The "morning after" question continues to stymie U.S. and regional diplomacy.

Indeed, the means of Saddam's demise fundamentally impact the post-Saddam Middle East. This is why the United States (and Iraq's neighbors) hoped for and encouraged the "nine millimeter ballot" -- a silver-bullet coup d'etat engineered by the Iraqi Army or dissidents in the Republican Guard or Kurdish dissidents or, frankly, any Iraqi national with the brass, means and opportunity. In 1992, a well-placed observer of the Middle East told me, rather bitterly: "That's unfortunately a traditional means of governmental change in our region. An assassination and coup with the former head of state pulled away by his heels. That resolution of the Saddam problem will be accepted (by Iraq's neighbors)."

Though the rumor-mill and occasional defectors mention plots, Saddam's security network has repeatedly crushed internal opposition.

In the aftermath of Sept. 11, the Bush administration has decided Saddam's terror-facilitating, weapons-of-mass-destruction-seeking regime must go. Besides, Saddam has violated the agreements that ended Desert Storm.

What are Washington's options? CIA finagling to remove an outlaw regime has a dismal track record. Clinton's air-only campaigns rattled but didn't drop Saddam. While the Kurds offer a "force on the ground" vaguely similar to the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, it is just that -- vaguely similar. Smashing Saddam appears to require the hammer of a U.S. armored corps, striking from Kuwait, supported by air strikes and -- perhaps -- Turkish forces driving south.

But consider this brave new Baghdad from Iran's point of view. Make no mistake, Iranians regard Saddam as the devil. The Iran-Iraq War, that World War I redux instigated by Saddam, deeply scars Iranian psyches. Tehran wants Saddam gone yesterday. Iranians, however, also fear what follows. There are already 7,000 American troops in Afghanistan, on Iran's eastern border. Now there are two hundred thousand or so to the west. How would the United States respond to an Iranian heavy corps trouncing a noxious regime in Canada?

Then there's what's been described, not quite fairly, as "the Saudi concern." Does removing one autocratic regime, albeit one of the earth's most vicious, open the door to removing others? The Bush administration has suggested that a democratic Iraq would politically reshape the region. There are regional autocrats that fear that result more than they fear Saddam's Scuds.

And what are the odds on a democratic Iraq? Iraqi Kurds have signaled they are interested in a "federal" Iraq, but that's viewed in some sectors as a step toward partition. Partition of Iraq is regarded, by many, as a euphemism for fragmentation -- a Mesopotamian chaos. The morning after, Iraq remains. But the year after, a partitioned Iraq might see a new Shia nation in the south, a remnant Iraq around Baghdad and a Kurdistan to the north. Turkey, however, won't allow an independent Kurdistan.

The Israeli-Palestinian fiasco adds another acid. In one Gotterdammerung scenario, a toppling Saddam launches a chemical attack on Israel. Let's say he misses Tel Aviv and the warhead kills thousands of Palestinians in Nablus. The conspiracy theories generated by that evil act would take three lifetimes to untangle.

Sure, Saddam's regime must go. But before that happens, U.S. strategists must have a clear picture of the political morning after -- and the time to frame it is many moons before.

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