Saddam Hussein's attack on the northern Kurdish region of Iraq delivered the coup de grace to a secret, six-year campaign against him--the largest covert operation by the CIA since the Afghan War, senior Clinton administration officials said Saturday. And it drove the United States back to square one in its effort to remove the Iraqi dictator.
Hussein's invasion of Kurdistan dealt a blow, in particular, to CIA Director John M. Deutch, who had personally promised that U.S.-backed efforts to topple the Iraqi president would succeed within a year, administration sources added.
"This is one of the greatest setbacks U.S. intelligence has ever suffered," a senior U.S. official said.
Sources said American intelligence officials had pinned their hopes on a cadre of Iraqi agents operating inside the country but that most of those agents have now been exposed and many of them executed--some swept up by Hussein's forces during the recent invasion and many more caught earlier this summer when a U.S.-backed coup plot was unraveling.
As a result, the Clinton administration faces a virtual vacuum in dealing with the core issue of the Iraqi crisis: getting rid of Hussein.
The latest element in the covert campaign to unseat Hussein--a campaign that began after his 1990 invasion of Kuwait--was launched early this year. Frustrated that the 1991 Persian Gulf War had turned into a costly and open-ended commitment because of Hussein's maneuvering, President Clinton signed a secret directive authorizing about $20 million for the CIA operation.
The sources said it represented the most far-reaching intelligence operation ordered by Clinton, whose legal background has given him an aversion to covert operations.
But the U.S. scheme in Iraq began to come apart this summer. Once again, Hussein had managed to stay a jump ahead of his American adversaries.
First, a CIA-backed plot to overthrow Hussein within the ranks of the Republican Guard, the military unit responsible for Iraq's military victories as well as for keeping Hussein in power, was uncovered by Iraqi security forces in late June and early July. The plot's lone "success" was a small bomb that went off in one of Hussein's palaces--several minutes after he left.
The plot had been the centerpiece of U.S. efforts. Hundreds of military officers were arrested and dozens of Iraqi U.S. agents were executed, according to American and Iraqi sources.
"It was an ambitious effort, but it was uncovered long before it got anywhere. It was basically wiped out in June and July. A lot of [Iraqi] U.S. agents were killed," one source said.
U.S. intelligence sources now believe Hussein's spies had penetrated the coup plot virtually from the beginning. Iraqi sources say the interrogations and executions were personally conducted by Qusai Hussein, the president's younger son and head of presidential security--and an object, along with the Iraqi leader's other son, of the U.S.-backed plan.
Although there have been several plots against Hussein over the years, this one was viewed as more important than earlier efforts. U.S. officials had concluded that because simultaneous 1991 uprisings in Iraq's Kurdish north and Shiite south failed to seriously challenge or undermine Hussein's rule, any real shift in power would have to come from Hussein's own support base among Sunni Muslims in Iraq's heartland. And that meant from within the Iraqi military.
Sources said the Republican Guard plot was orchestrated with the help of Jordan's King Hussein, with the support of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, and through the Iraqi National Accord (INA), an opposition group made up largely of Sunni former military officers operating primarily out of London and the Jordanian capital, Amman.
The INA, for years one of the smaller Iraqi opposition groups, became a central player after King Hussein turned against Baghdad last year and called on the Iraqi people to rise up against the current leadership. He opened up Amman as a neighboring base of operations and gave new life to Sunni opposition, sources said.
In addition to the unraveling of the Republican Guard effort, another blow was dealt to U.S. intelligence last week when Baghdad made its lightning strike on Kurdistan, the center of a second CIA operation. Half a dozen Americans ran the operation out of Salahuddin, near the Kurdish capital, Irbil, which was captured by Iraqi troops Aug. 31.
The Americans escaped shortly before Iraqi agents arrived on the scene. But hundreds of U.S.-hired Iraqi agents and allies were captured and interrogated, and, U.S. officials now believe, some probably were executed.
Salahuddin was also a center of operations for the Iraqi National Congress, a coalition of largely Kurdish and Shiite groups formed with U.S. support and CIA funding.
For the last five years, Masoud Barzani, the leader of the Democratic Party of Kurdistan (KDP), has been a major player in the Iraqi National Congress and a recipient of CIA support and financing.
But in his quest to regain control of the Kurdish capital and to push aside the rival Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, Barzani turned to Baghdad. In exchange for military help, he abandoned both his U.S. allies and other members of the Iraqi National Congress, the sources said. KDP members guided Iraqi intelligence to the offices and homes of Iraqi National Congress members in Salahuddin within hours of Iraq's conquest of Irbil, Iraqi and U.S. sources said.
"Barzani betrayed us," a U.S. official said Saturday. "Because of him, the INC is now a lost cause, and the north has been lost as a base of operations for everyone."
U.S. officials have been divided about whether either CIA effort would ever succeed in toppling Hussein. Speaking for the skeptics, one senior official said Saturday, "All these efforts and plots are best summed up as pathetic."
But either way, the United States may have lost far more than Clinton administration officials have publicly indicated since the crisis erupted.
After the Gulf War, a U.S. intelligence assessment predicted that Hussein could not survive 18 months in office under the pressure of economic sanctions and internal discontent.
But the Iraqi leader has now outlasted President Bush as well as covert operations into which the United States pumped more money and more manpower than for any other such effort since the 1979-89 CIA operation supporting Afghan rebels in their fight against Soviet forces.