Bush’s Foreign Policy Team Is Split on How to Handle Hussein


The Bush presidency’s foreign policy priorities are still under review, but already the new administration is experiencing its first internal fractures over how to salvage U.S. policy toward Iraq.

Two distinct factions are emerging as President Bush’s foreign policy team debates the best way to follow through on the administration’s pledge to increase pressure on Baghdad, U.S. officials acknowledge.

The biggest difference between the two camps involves the depth of U.S. support for controversial opposition forces that are attempting to mobilize Iraqi exiles to oust the regime of President Saddam Hussein.


One faction, including representatives of Vice President Dick Cheney’s office, the Pentagon and Congress, advocates an aggressive strategy designed to empower the Iraqi National Congress, or INC--the main opposition group--to launch military operations against Hussein. The goal would be to erode the Iraqi leader’s power until he is forced, one way or another, from office.

INC leaders, who arrived in Washington last week for talks with the new administration and members of Congress, are already boasting of a larger U.S. role in their activities.

“We are very confident that the Bush administration is going to help us,” Ahmad Chalabi, one of the group’s six leaders, said in an interview. “We want to work so we can initiate actions against Saddam on the ground. We’re talking about getting more military training and going back into the country, and they’ve agreed to that.”

The other administration faction, centered within the State Department, favors a policy of “streamlined” sanctions against Iraq and more modest support for the opposition, limited largely to intelligence, propaganda and aid for displaced Iraqis.

The approach this side would prefer, its advocates say, stands a better chance of enticing European and Arab allies back into a common policy fold.

Both groups share a goal of forcing Hussein to honor the terms of the 1991 Persian Gulf War cease-fire, especially his pledge to surrender all weapons of mass destruction and stop threatening both his own people and neighboring states.


But under Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during Operation Desert Storm, the State Department is wary of the INC and of the potential dangers of even low-level military support that could become open-ended and increasingly costly, U.S. officials say.

Over the weekend, Powell endorsed U.S. support for an INC mission that would be limited to “public diplomacy” and humanitarian work.

“They can be effective in some of the public diplomacy actions they have undertaken, in broadcasting or getting information to the Iraqi people about the nature of their regime and what their leadership is costing them. I think in terms of providing humanitarian relief,” Powell said Sunday on CBS-TV’s “Face the Nation.”

Powell said the administration would look at what else the Iraqi opposition might do “that makes sense and supports our policies.”

His Gulf War strategy gave rise to what has become known as the Powell Doctrine, a military approach that calls for well-defined goals, a clear exit strategy and deployment of enough forces to complete a mission as quickly as possible. His strategy is intended in part to avoid the kind of problems America experienced in Vietnam.

Key allies in the 38-nation coalition that went to war against Hussein, including several neighboring governments, also don’t support INC military actions. Most have indicated that they would not provide the front-line access needed to stage covert operations, U.S. and Arab officials say.


Many of these governments now advocate a policy of engagement with Iraq as the best way to promote change.

Powell’s team is confident that it can eventually win allied support for a streamlined sanctions policy toward Baghdad. That would lift the most punishing aspects of existing economic sanctions but leave in place an arms embargo and U.N. control over Iraq’s oil revenue to ensure that the Hussein regime does not use its income to develop more weapons of mass destruction.

Powell has already discussed the policy shift with several European and Mideast governments, and U.S. officials say he will hold further talks next week during his first foreign trip as secretary of State--to the Mideast to mark the 10th anniversary of the Gulf War’s end.

But even if the Bush administration could win foreign support for a more aggressive plan involving opposition forces, the State Department is skeptical about the exiles’ ability to stay united or have much impact, officials say.

The INC’s internal divisions were responsible for fighting that broke out in 1996 among its rival Kurdish wings, opening the door for Hussein to send troops to the northern Iraqi portion of the region known as Kurdistan. Both the INC and the CIA station operating in the region were forced to flee to Turkey.

The INC has developed a series of military options for U.S. consideration. They include launching operations from Kurdistan, from a newly created enclave in southern Iraq near the Kuwaiti border, and even from Iran, according to sources within the group. But each would require changing the rules of engagement--and U.S. air support--if Hussein dispatched troops to squelch the resistance.


“We want U.S. backup . . . to act in participation with the U.S. military,” said Francis Brooke, the U.S. spokesman for the INC. “If Saddam moves his armor in large numbers, then we would expect the U.S. military to be prepared to pursue.”

Under current rules of engagement, U.S. warplanes bomb areas only when the planes are targeted by Iraq during flights over the two “no-fly” zones established after the Gulf War in northern and southern Iraq.

The INC wants the Bush administration to declare “squares in the sand,” or zones from which Iraq’s military could not move without becoming targets for American planes.

That strategy is designed mainly to undermine morale within the Iraqi army and the elite Republican Guard, not to win big battles against Baghdad’s estimated 350,000-strong military machine. The INC would, however, need significant training from the United States to pull it off, Chalabi said.

“We want training to create an effective force so that we can act as a catalyst to attract members of the Iraqi army to our side,” Chalabi said.

The group is counting on past supporters who are joining the Bush administration, such as Deputy Secretary of Defense-designate Paul Wolfowitz, to push for a stronger U.S. role. It has also presented its proposals to the Pentagon.


“We think we’re in a strong position. In general, the Department of Defense is organizing along our lines,” said Brooke, the group’s spokesman.

The State Department appears considerably less receptive. Group leaders met Tuesday with Assistant Secretary of State Edward Walker. The discussion centered on $29 million in U.S. funds earmarked to help opposition forces air anti-Hussein broadcasts, investigate war crimes, ferret out intelligence and distribute humanitarian aid supplies.

The funds, which were authorized during the Clinton administration, have been on hold while the INC prepared specific proposals for their use. A group spokesman said Tuesday that the money still has not been released.

A State Department official denied that the disagreement over Iraq policy constitutes a major policy rupture, and said he had not heard of any disagreements among the key U.S. foreign policy players.

But according to a well-placed U.S. official who requested anonymity, Powell is clearly apprehensive about providing extensive U.S. support to the INC.

“Powell knows that this is a feckless group of people whose dreams far exceed their capabilities,” the official said. “And he’s not at all enthusiastic about relying on them.”