Wed Jan 15,11:44 AM ET – Reuters
By Tabassum Zakaria
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Time has run out for the CIA to organize a coup against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein leaving conventional warfare as the main instrument to achieve the U.S. goal of regime change in Baghdad, intelligence experts say.
[Given the timeline here it’s unlikely you’re going to be able to put together a successful coup in a couple of months,] said one former intelligence official.
Added a U.S. official: ‘It would always be very, very difficult to do.’
With the Pentagon massing forces in the Gulf for a possible invasion of Iraq, U.S. spy operations are focused instead on paving the way through propaganda and organizing opposition groups, similar to the 2001 campaign in Afghanistan against the Taliban and al Qaeda, these experts say.
Saddam has tight control over his inner circle and would kill anyone suspected of plotting a coup. ‘This guy has historically killed off anybody anywhere around him, including members of his immediate family, who look like they’re sticking their heads up,’ said James Woolsey, a former CIA director.
The Iraqi leader has also been known to test loyalty. ‘He does double, triple plots. He’ll have people talk about a coup and he’ll find out who is sympathetic and he’ll have them killed,’ said a U.S. government source. ‘How do you insert yourself into that process? We can’t even recruit a decent al Qaeda person let alone get inside Saddam’s circle.’
There was a chance, however improbable, that a general close to him might decide that toppling Saddam would be less risky than trying to survive a U.S. assault. But without a declared U.S. war, any top Iraqi general considering switching sides would be reluctant because of uncertainty over how serious America was to take action, experts said.
NO U.S. ‘ASSETS’
‘It’s just a matter of getting to his circle and we have no assets close to Saddam that would get people in,’ said Robert Baer, a former CIA officer who worked in Iraq. Some intelligence experts criticized the U.S. government for neglecting Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War saying there was no sustained effort to develop ties to people close to Saddam nor any serious attempt to topple the Iraqi leader.
‘Those who might have been inclined to do it in years gone by weren’t so sure of our resolve,’ said a former intelligence official. ‘So (now) solving the problem short of war, I don’t see it. I think we’ve crossed the Rubicon.’
In spy terminology Iraq is a ‘denied area’ with no U.S. access to insiders, no U.S. offices in the country and limited opportunities to contact Iraqi officials when they travel abroad because they are usually accompanied by minders.
‘Anybody who even appears to be anti-regime is probably going to be detected by Iraqi intelligence before we detect them, and they’re probably going to be dead before we realize they’re a possible ally,’ said Anthony Cordesman, a Middle East expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Current covert activities center on propaganda to send a message to the Iraqi military and citizens not to resist American forces, trying to lure high-level defectors and organizing opposition among the Kurds in northern Iraq and other groups to aid any U.S. invasion, experts said.
The CIA is flying in bags of cash to grease the way, and intelligence agencies are tracking Saddam’s movements. U.S. covert operations include working through defectors and Iraqi opposition groups to support U.S. efforts in the region. And spy agencies are probably conducting psychological warfare operations aimed at creating stresses within the Iraqi military about who remains loyal, experts said.
While the majority of the Iraqi army was expected to quickly abandon a fight against U.S. forces, the key question remains how long the elite Republican Guard will hold on.
Saddam’s closest security personnel are seen as unlikely to turn on him because they believe their fate is tied to his. ‘People who control Saddam’s security all are convinced if Saddam dies, they are going to go to jail at best,’ Baer said.
The Iraqi leader was seen as unlikely to choose exile because he would be loathe to relinquish power, experts said.
‘For him to go hat in hand to a Gaddafi or someone and say, ‘Please take me in,’ I don’t think he’d do it,’ said Woolsey referring to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.
The issue of Saddam’s replacement also remains unresolved, but one U.S. official noted that Hamid Karzai did not emerge as the leader of the post-Taliban Afghanistan until well into the U.S. military campaign there.
‘Obviously you can’t just get rid of him and leave his sons, you’ve got to have a regime change,’ Woolsey said.
Some of the Iraqi opposition groups in exile are of limited use to U.S. efforts because ‘these are groups hopelessly penetrated by Iraqi intelligence,’ said Cordesman.
Still, U.S. intelligence has little choice but to deal with opposition groups like the Iraqi National Congress. ‘Some parts of the intelligence community have been skeptical about them,’ noted the U.S. official. ‘But you have to play with it, you can’t afford to be too picky.’