By Seymour Hersh – New Yorker December 20, 2001
In November of 1993, Ahmad Chalabi, the leader of the Iraqi National Congress, an opposition group devoted to the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, presented the Clinton Administration with a detailed, four-phase war plan entitled “The End Game,” along with an urgent plea for money to finance it. “The time for the plan is now,” Chalabi wrote. “Iraq is on the verge of spontaneous combustion. It only needs a trigger to set off a chain of events that will lead to the overthrow of Saddam.” It was a message that Chalabi would repeat for the next eight years.
Chalabi, who is fifty-six, was born into a wealthy Iraqi Shiite banking family and earned a doctorate in mathematics from the University of Chicago. He received money and authorization from the Clinton Administration to put his plan into effect, and by October, 1994, a small C.I.A. outpost had been set up in an area in northern Iraq controlled by the Kurds. Chalabi’s headquarters were nearby. His plan called for simultaneous insurrections in Basra, the largest city in southern Iraq, which is dominated by disaffected Shiites (Saddam and his followers are Sunnis), and in Mosul and Kirkuk, Kurdish cities in the north. Massive Iraqi military defections would follow. “We called it Chalabi’s rolling coup,” Bob Baer, the C.I.A. agent in charge, recounted.
At the time, Baer has written in “See No Evil,” a memoir to be published next month, “the C.I.A. didn’t have a single source in Iraq. . . . Not only were there no human sources in country, the C.I.A. didn’t have any in the neighboring countries—Iran, Jordan, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia—who reported on Iraq. Like the rest of the U.S. government, its intelligence-gathering apparatus was blind when it came to Iraq.”
In March, 1995, Chalabi’s insurrection was launched, and failed dramatically. “There was nothing there,” Baer told me. “No one moved except one Kurdish leader acting on his own—three days too late. Nothing happened.” As far as recruiting agents from inside the Iraqi military, “Chalabi didn’t deliver a single lieutenant, let alone a colonel or a general.” Baer emphasized that he wasn’t dismissive of Chalabi himself, because, as he put it, “Chalabi was trying.” Even so, Baer said, “he was bluffing—he thought it was better to bluff and try to win. But he was forced to play bridge with no trump cards.” Baer went on, “He always thought it was a psychological war, and that if Clinton would stand up and say, ‘It’s time for the guy to go,’ people would do it.”
Chalabi had written in his war plan that if there was “no movement” and if Saddam was permitted to export oil, “then the psychology of the people will turn. Saddam will appear to open [for] them hope for the future. At that point he will have escaped.” A month after the failed insurrection, the United Nations Security Council allowed Iraq to resume oil sales under its Oil for Food program, insuring a flow of money to the regime.
By late 1996, the Iraqi Army had all but driven Chalabi’s operation out of northern Iraq. A hundred and thirty Iraqi National Congress members were executed. Chalabi managed to maintain his hold on the I.N.C., despite repeated charges from the coalition’s members of mismanagement, corruption, and self-aggrandizement, and he moved his anti-Saddam base to London. His plans were largely written off by the State Department and the C.I.A. America’s goal would be to pursue Saddam’s removal by military or political coup, and not by open rebellion. “I don’t see an opposition group that has the viability to overthrow Saddam,” Marine Corps General Anthony Zinni, the commander of the United States Central Command (CENTCOM), who is now serving as the U.S. special envoy to the Middle East, later told a Senate committee. “Even if we had Saddam gone, we could end up with fifteen, twenty, or ninety groups competing for power.”
Chalabi bore his fall from official favor gracefully. Disdainful of the Clinton Administration, which he felt had abandoned him in northern Iraq, he took his campaign to the press and to Congress, and the I.N.C. soon emerged as a rallying point for political conservatives and for many of the former senior officials who had run the Gulf War for the first President Bush.
In February of 1998, forty prominent Americans—including Caspar Weinberger, Frank Carlucci, and Donald Rumsfeld, all former Secretaries of Defense—signed an open letter to President Clinton warning that Saddam Hussein still posed an immediate threat, because of his stockpile of biological and chemical weapons. They urged that the government once again consider fostering a popular uprising against the Iraqi government. Echoing Chalabi’s 1993 war plan, the letter writers argued that Saddam’s weakness was his lack of popular support: “He rules by terror. The same brutality which makes it unlikely that any coups or conspiracies can succeed makes him hated by his own people. . . . Iraq today is ripe for a broad-based insurrection.” Their first two recommendations were that the I.N.C. be recognized as the provisional government of Iraq and be reinstalled in northern Iraq. Another recommendation urged the Clinton Administration to release Iraqi assets frozen at the time of the Gulf War, which total more than $1.5 billion, to help fund the provisional government.
The letter, like similar pleas from congressional Republicans, failed to bring about a change in policy, although eight months later President Clinton signed the Iraq Liberation Act, which allocated ninety-seven million dollars for training and military equipment for the Iraqi opposition. Because of continued skepticism within the government, the I.N.C. has received less than a million dollars of that money, but the State Department has provided the group with roughly ten million dollars in routine operating funds.
During the Presidential campaign last year, George W. Bush and Al Gore both promised support for the opposition to Saddam—Bush said he would “take him out”—if he continued to develop weapons of mass destruction. Most arms-control experts believe that Iraq has in fact continued to develop such weapons, but after the election Condoleezza Rice, the national-security adviser, made it clear, according to a former government official, that the new Administration would not make Iraq a priority. “Her feeling was that Saddam was a small problem—chump change—that we needed to wall him into a corner so we could get on with the big issues: Russia, China, NATO expansion, a new relationship with India and, down the road, with Africa,” the former official said.
Before September 11th, according to one of Chalabi’s advisers, the I.N.C.’s war plan revolved around training, encouraging defectors, and American enforcement of the no-fly zone in southern Iraq. The idea was to recruit two hundred instructors and put them to work training a force of five thousand or more dissident Iraqis, reinforced by soldiers of fortune, some of whom, inevitably, would be retired Americans who had served in Special Forces units. The United States would also be asked to institute a no-drive zone, backed up by air strikes, to protect the insurgents from attack by Iraqi tanks.
A Chalabi adviser explained, “You insert this force into southern Iraq”—the site of most of Iraq’s oil fields—”perhaps at an abandoned airbase west of Basra, and you sit there and let Saddam come to you. And if he doesn’t come you go home and say we failed. This is not the Bay of Pigs.” On the other hand, the adviser said, “if the insurgent force took Basra—that’s the end. You don’t have to go to Baghdad. You tie up his oil and he’ll collapse.”
Then came September 11th, and the quick victories in Afghanistan, where the combination of internal rebellion, intense bombing, and Special Forces deployment turned the Taliban out of power within weeks. Ahmad Chalabi has now given the Bush Administration an updated war plan, which calls not only for bombing but for the deployment of thousands of American Special Forces troops.
There is a second significant addition to the plan: the participation of Iran, which fought a protracted war with Iraq during the nineteen-eighties. The government of President Mohammad Khatami, America’s newfound partner in the war against the Taliban, has agreed to permit I.N.C. forces and their military equipment to cross the Iranian border into southern Iraq. An I.N.C. official told me that the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control gave the organization special approval to open a liaison office in Tehran. (American companies are forbidden under federal sanctions law to do business with Iran.) The office opened in April. “We did it with U.S. government money, and that’s what convinced them in Tehran,” the I.N.C. official said. “They took it as a sign from the United States of a common interest—getting rid of Saddam. The way to get to him is through Iran.”
Once inside Iraq, according to Chalabi’s scenario, the I.N.C. would establish a firebase and announce the creation of a provisional Iraqi government, which the Bush Administration would quickly recognize. Nearly two-thirds of the Iraqi population are Shiites, and they are seen as potential allies in a political uprising. The United States would then begin an intense bombing campaign, as it did in Afghanistan, and airlift thousands of Special Forces troops into southern Iraq. At the same time, I.N.C. supporters in the north, in the areas under Kurdish control, would begin signalling that they were about to attack. If all went as planned, dissent would quickly break out inside the Iraqi military, and Saddam Hussein would be confronted with a dilemma: whether to send his élite forces south to engage the Americans or, for his own protection, keep all his forces nearby to guard against an invasion from the north.
Chalabi’s new plan also calls for the United States to provide funding for an I.N.C. mobile assault force of six battalions of armed Toyota four-by-fours, equipped with machine guns, recoilless cannons, and antitank missiles. “If you did that, there would be massive defections,” the I.N.C. official told me. The six battalions, he said, could stop an Iraqi counterattack by two armored divisions. Two preliminary target areas have been isolated, both near airbases that, once secured, could be used to fly in American Special Forces troops. The attack plan was worked out with the help of a retired four-star Army general, Wayne Downing, and a former C.I.A. officer, Duane (Dewey) Clarridge, who have served as unpaid consultants to the I.N.C. (Downing was appointed by President Bush in October to be the deputy national-security adviser for combatting terrorism.)
Downing, who ran a Special Forces command during the Gulf War, was convinced that the I.N.C., with airpower and a small contingent of well-trained Special Forces, could do the job inside Iraq. He was privy to one of the most astonishing engagements of the Gulf War: In mid-February of 1991, a Delta Force troop of sixteen men on night patrol south of Al-Qaim, near the Syrian border in western Iraq, was overrun by a large enemy force, and the Iraqis wounded two Americans. The Delta troops, operating from heavily armed vehicles, counterattacked with grenade launchers and machine guns (a maneuver known as Final Protective Fire) and killed or wounded an estimated hundred and eighty Iraqis, with no further injury to themselves. One American veteran of the Gulf War told me, “In the west”—where Delta operated—”there was little opposition, and we had freedom of movement”; that is, the troops were operating on their own. “Downing loved it.”
America’s success in routing the Taliban has improved Chalabi’s standing with some elements of Washington’s defense community. “They believe they have found the perfect model, and it works,” a defense analyst said of the updated war plan. “The model is bombing, a modest insertion of Special Forces, plus an uprising.” Similarly, Tim McCarthy, a former United Nations weapons inspector, acknowledged that “the one thing the I.N.C. has going for it is that, once someone puts their stake down, the Iraqis will have to go after them. Saddam will have to send his Hammurabi after them”—the Iraqi Army’s élite armored-tank division. Once Saddam made his move, McCarthy said, his forces would be exposed to American air strikes, “and then they are toast.”
Many of the people who signed the 1998 open letter to Clinton urging American support for Iraqi insurgents are now in positions of authority in the Bush Administration, including Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld; his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz; and Douglas Feith, an Under-Secretary of Defense. Richard Armitage, the Deputy Secretary of State, was also a signatory. One of the drafters of the letter was Richard Perle, the longtime conservative foreign-policy adviser in Washington, who has turned the obscure Defense Policy Board, which he chairs, into a powerful platform for advancing policies dear to the Republican right. In the past few weeks, Perle and another I.N.C. supporter, James Woolsey, a former director of the C.I.A., have inspired a surge of articles and columns calling for the extension of the Afghan war into Iraq.
The Pentagon officials, buttressed by Perle and Woolsey, are at odds with the State Department—specifically, with their fellow letter-signer Richard Armitage, who has now become, in private, an opponent of the revised Chalabi plan. “I’ve got to believe that Wolfowitz and Feith are angry” at Armitage, one friend of all three men told me. “They feel he’s betrayed a fundamental conviction they shared.”
“September 11th changed the whole equation,” said the former New York congressman Stephen Solarz, who helped Perle draft the 1998 letter. “Before then, an argument could be made that deterrence worked.” In recent speeches and articles, Perle has dwelled on the potential threat from Iraq. Last month, at a meeting in Philadelphia of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a conservative think tank, Perle said, “The question in my mind is: Do we wait for Saddam and hope for the best? Do we wait and hope he doesn’t do what we know he is capable of, which is distributing weapons of mass destruction to anonymous terrorists, or do we take preëmptive action? . . . What is essential here is not to look at the opposition to Saddam as it is today, without any external support, without any realistic hope of removing that awful regime, but to look at what could be created.”
One of Armitage’s supporters in the internal debate, a former high-level intelligence official, wondered scornfully if the Perle circle’s enthusiasm for Chalabi’s plan grew out of their unease about the first Bush Administration’s decision in early 1991, when they were in power, not to seek Saddam’s demise at the end of the Gulf War. “It’s the revenge of the nerds,” he said. Also, he said, “They won in Afghanistan when everybody said it wouldn’t work, and it’s got them in a euphoric mood of cockiness. They went against the established experts on the Middle East who said it would lead to fundamental insurrections in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. Not so, and anyone who now preaches any approach of solving problems with diplomacy is scoffed at. They’re on a roll.”
Armitage views the I.N.C.’s eagerness to confront Saddam, the former official told me, as ill-considered. “We have no idea what could go wrong in Iraq if the crazies took over that country,” the former official said, referring to religious fundamentalists. “Better the devil we know than the one we don’t.” He described Armitage as confident that he could block the plan, and frustrated by the amount of time he has been forced to spend on the issue. “Dick says no way. He’s going to win it.” Otherwise, he added, “he knows it’s going to be a political disaster.”
A senior Administration official depicted Chalabi as “totally charming,” but said that the Administration had no intention of allowing “a bunch of half-assed people to send foreigners into combat.” Of Chalabi and his supporters in and out of government, the senior official said, “Who among them has ever smelled cordite? These are pissants who can’t get the President’s ear and have to blame someone else. We’re not going to let them lead others down the garden path.” The I.N.C., he added, is not the only Iraqi opposition group being funded by the Bush Administration, and not the only group capable of “working through Iran.”
Secretary of State Colin Powell, known to be skeptical of the I.N.C., has “backed away from the infighting,” a senior general explained, and left it to Armitage, his trusted colleague, “to stall them off four or five months. There’s a lot of ways to squeeze Saddam without using military force.” More focussed sanctions would be one logical step, but the Bush Administration last month agreed to delay for six months its insistence on “smart sanctions,” which would enable the United Nations to crack down on “dual use” goods, which could be employed for military or civilian purposes, while allowing medicine, food, and other essentials to flow. The Iraqi regime now exports an estimated two million barrels of oil daily under the Oil for Food program. Major purchasers include ExxonMobil, Chevron, and other American companies, who routinely buy the oil through third parties. As many as eight hundred thousand barrels of that oil a day end up in the U.S. market.
In recent weeks, Chalabi’s revised war plan, augmented and modified by a Pentagon planning group authorized by Paul Wolfowitz, has made its way to the Joint Chiefs of Staff for evaluation. It has left some military men cold, and prompted a debate about the lessons learned from Afghanistan and how they can be applied to Saddam. “There’s no question we can take him down,” a former government official told me. “But what do you need to do it? The J.C.S. is feeling the pressure. These guys are being squeezed so hard.”
Some of the concerns were articulated by Robert Pape, a University of Chicago political scientist who has written widely on airpower. “The lesson from Afghanistan is less than meets the eye,” Pape told me. “Airpower is becoming more effective, but the real lesson is that you need significant ground forces to make the strategy effective. The Taliban, which controlled fifty thousand troops, were thinly dispersed and never in total control of the country. We don’t have an armed opposition already in Iraq like the Northern Alliance.” A former senior State Department official depicted the I.N.C. proposal as “highly risky, because two things they can’t control have to happen. There’s got to be an uprising against Saddam, and our allies have to join us in country.” A senior intelligence official similarly debunked the notion that what worked in Afghanistan would necessarily work in Iraq as equivalent to “taking the show from upstate New York to Broadway.”
The military’s response has been cautious and bureaucratic. A former official told me that the Joint Chiefs ordered their staff to “come up with a counterproposal,” which is now in the planning stages. An Air Force consultant said that the I.N.C. is not included in the Pentagon’s planning, adding, “Everything is going to happen inside Iraq, and Chalabi is going to be on the outside.” According to a senior Bush Administration official, two senior American diplomats were recently sent to northern Iraq to talk to Kurdish opposition leaders and “check out who’s got go and who’s got no go.”
Generals and admirals have been among the most outspoken critics of Chalabi’s proposals. In his years of planning at CENTCOM, General Zinni concluded, according to a Clinton Administration official, that a prudent and successful invasion of Iraq would involve the commitment of two corps—at least six combat divisions, or approximately a hundred and fifty thousand soldiers—as well as the ability to fly bombing missions from nearby airfields. In an essay published last year in the United States Naval Institute Proceedings, Zinni, who was on the eve of retirement, wrote about what it would take to “drive a stake” through the heart of someone like Saddam:
You must have the political will—and that means the will of the administration, the Congress, and the American people. All must be united in a desire for action. Instead, however, we try to get results on the cheap. There are congressmen today who want to fund the Iraqi Liberation Act, and let some silk-suited, Rolex-wearing guys in London gin up an expedition. We’ll equip a thousand fighters and arm them with ninety-seven million dollars’ worth of AK-47s and insert them into Iraq. And what will we have? A Bay of Goats, most likely.
One of the officials currently involved in the Pentagon’s planning said that he, too, had doubts about the efficacy of an I.N.C. armed insurrection, even one backed up by American warplanes and Special Forces. “If you go to war and don’t address the root political problem, why bother?” he asked. “All we’re going to get is another tyrant in five years. If this is the war to end all jihads, it’s got to have a broad-based political agenda behind it.”
One of Zinni’s close aides told me, “Our question was ‘What about the day after?’ How do you deal with the long-term security aspects of Iraq? For example, do you take the Republican Guard”—the military unit most loyal to Saddam—”and disarm it? Or is it preferable to turn it from having a capability to protect Saddam to a capability to protect Iraq? You’ve got Kurds in the north, Arab Shia in the south, and the Baath Party in the middle, with great internal tribal divisions. There’s potential for civil war. Layer on external opposition and you’ve got a potential for great instability. I’m a military planner and plan for the worst case. As bad as this guy is, a stable Iraq is better than instability.”
When I asked James Woolsey, the former C.I.A. director, about these concerns, he said, “Iraq has its tribal factions and regional loyalties, but it also has a very sophisticated and intellectual infrastructure of highly educated people. There’s no reason they couldn’t establish a federalized—or loosely federalized—democracy.”
“The issue is not how nice it would be to get rid of Saddam,” a former senior Defense Department official told me. “Everybody in the Middle East would be delighted to see him go. The problem is feasibility. We looked at all these plans and always came to the conclusion that the external opposition did not have the armed ability to deal with Saddam’s police state.”
President Bush has not yet decided what to do about Iraq, according to the senior Administration official. Until he has, he said, the State Department will continue to give financial support to opposition groups, including the I.N.C. In a Washington Post interview earlier this fall, Condoleezza Rice used a football metaphor to indicate that all options remain open. “We will be calling audibles every time we come to the line,” she told the columnist Jim Hoagland.
There is evidence that Saddam Hussein is rattled by the war talk in Washington. “The Iraqis are scared to death,” one intelligence source said. The intelligence community, according to a former official, has also received hints—however hard to credit—that the Iraqis might be willing to join in the hunt for Osama bin Laden. Conciliatory messages were relayed through diplomatic channels in Canada, and eventually reached the White House.
Inside the Administration, there is a general consensus on one issue, officials told me: there will be no further effort to revive the U.N. inspection regime in Iraq. The inspectors were withdrawn in late 1998, after seven years of contentious and sometimes very successful inspections, and Iraq has refused since then to accept a new wave of inspectors. “I’ve been told that senior U.S. officials have little faith in the viability of the new inspection regime,” one disarmament expert told me.
There is every indication that the next few months, as the President struggles to reach a decision, will produce more, perhaps much more, of the same: continued American patrolling of the no-fly zones in the south and north of Iraq and occasional bombing of military targets. A retired flag officer described the approach as deterrence: “We have to make sure that Saddam knows that if he sticks his head up he’ll get whacked.”