A highly publicized U.S. campaign to persuade senior Iraqi military and civilian leaders to surrender has failed to produce any significant defections, and U.S. intelligence officials have concluded that those closest to President Saddam Hussein are unlikely to give up.
The effort now appears to be one of several miscalculations in a high-stakes U.S. strategy to use bombing, secret contacts and inducements -- including cash payments -- to key Iraqi leaders to quickly overthrow Hussein.
“We underestimated their capacity to put up resistance,” said a Bush administration official who requested anonymity. “We underestimated the role of nationalism. And we overestimated the appeal of liberation.”
U.S. officials note that the war is just a week old, and they say that the sentiment among Iraqi military leaders could change quickly if Hussein’s forces around Baghdad are routed by American-led troops.
But a U.S. intelligence official said no cracks have appeared in Hussein’s command structure as U.S.-led British troops fight their way toward the capital.
“I think the inner circle are in it for the long haul,” the intelligence official said Thursday. The estimated two dozen members of Hussein’s inner command include his two sons, Uday and Qusai, other members of his extended family and ruling Arab Socialist Baath Party stalwarts who have survived numerous purges.
The U.S. effort to encourage defections, run jointly by the Pentagon and the CIA, has been scaled back sharply since last weekend. “The negotiations went nowhere,” said a former senior CIA official. “All of them have proved futile.”
He and other experts on Iraq said using telephones, cell phones and e-mail or relying on Iraqi defectors to contact senior Iraqi officials was problematic from the start because Hussein’s secret police and spy services tightly monitor electronic communications in the country.
The former official and others willing to talk about the effort requested anonymity because of the sensitive topic.
The effort may have had a second goal, they said. It might have also been designed to cast suspicion on Hussein loyalists in hopes of sowing top-level turmoil. Hussein has imprisoned or killed anyone suspected of disloyalty in the past, and he crushed two coup attempts backed by the CIA in the mid-1990s.
A CIA spokesman said that reaching out to Iraqi officials to put them under suspicion indicates “an active imagination,” but he declined to comment further. Nor would he comment on whether Hussein or his aides might have used the contacts to mislead U.S. officials.
In the Afghanistan war, the CIA disbursed millions of dollars in cash to buy information or loyalty from local warlords. Intelligence officials declined to say what they have offered to Iraqi leaders, but they made it clear that they are prepared to cut deals.
“The principal inducement is not killing them,” one U.S. official said. But he confirmed that cash payments and other inducements are on the table. “If it’s determined that’s what it’s going to take to get some commander to have a large chunk of troops lay down their arms, that would be a price worth paying.”
Nathaniel Kern, an Arabist who has visited Iraq repeatedly and knows a number of Iraqi officials, said a plan that relies on Iraqi defectors using cell phones to call Iraqi officials to negotiate surrender is absurd.
“Over the years, any Iraqi officials I’ve been in contact with call me on the phone only when they’re outside of Iraq,” said Kern, who heads a Washington-based consulting firm. “They won’t go into questions of substance in e-mail. They say, ‘Merry Christmas,’ and if [I] come back and say, ‘Happy New Year, how’s life in Baghdad?’ -- no reply.”
The CIA and the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency have spent years profiling the Iraqi military and government leadership, seeking vulnerabilities and signs of disloyalty.
“You try to build a database on all those people, what their likes and dislikes are, whether their family is interested in leaving the country,” a military intelligence official said. “Some people’s dossiers might be three pages long, sometimes it’s just a paragraph.”
The profiles are built on scraps of data from a distance, the official said. “It’s really difficult to tell beforehand who’s going to be receptive or not.”
In recent weeks, White House, Pentagon and State Department officials repeatedly publicized their effort to reach out to Iraqi leaders through calls and e-mail, as well as with speeches by President Bush, the airdrop of more than 25 million leaflets and round-the-clock, Arabic-language radio broadcasts on five frequencies.
U.S. officials say the operation included clandestine meetings in and near Baghdad between Iraqi officials and operatives from Syrian and Saudi intelligence services who were among those acting as U.S. surrogates.
Sen. John D. “Jay” Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said face-to-face meetings “continue to a certain degree” but appear less likely to produce major defections or surrenders with each passing day.
He also questioned the Pentagon’s leaflet drops over Iraq.
“We’re still committing substantial numbers of flights to leaflets,” Rockefeller said. “I’m beginning to ask the question why, because it doesn’t seem to be working.”
It’s unclear how many of the approximately 4,500 Iraqis now in allied custody surrendered because of the U.S. appeals and how many were captured in battle. In the 1991 Persian Gulf War, more than 80,000 Iraqi troops surrendered or were captured in the U.S.-led coalition’s 100-hour ground assault.
Current and former intelligence officials criticize the Pentagon for overly optimistic assessments and predictions of how Iraqis would respond to a U.S. invasion.
Judith Yaphe, the chief CIA analyst on Iraq during the Gulf War, said the Pentagon this time relied on overly optimistic assessments and predictions from Iraqi opposition groups in exile, particularly the London-based Iraqi National Congress. The CIA, she and current officials said, has been more skeptical of such claims.
“It was a fantasy,” said Yaphe, who teaches at the National Defense University in Washington. “They had a strategic vision that we would face no opposition, that everyone would surrender, that Iraqis would throw rose petals and rice, and people would welcome us as conquering liberators. Clearly those judgments were not based on reality.”
A current intelligence official offered a similar assessment.
“The intelligence community was not overly optimistic at all,” said the official, who is involved in discussions on Iraq.
“There was very healthy debate on all the key issues: Who’s going to hold together? Who’s going to defect? Who’s going to fight?”
But the official said many in the analytical community were convinced that administration hawks had little interest in hearing pessimistic assessments. Some were also concerned that CIA Director George J. Tenet and others appeared more focused on helping the White House make the case for war than on calling attention to potential problems.
Less clear is whether the CIA misjudged a tip from an informant in Baghdad that Hussein and his sons would be sleeping at Dora Farm, a heavily guarded compound belonging to Hussein’s daughter, Hala, near Baghdad University. The war began when U.S. forces attacked the site before dawn March 20 with “bunker-buster” bombs and Tomahawk missiles.
The CIA spokesman insisted Thursday that the report that Hussein was at Dora Farm was “as ironclad as you can get” and that “not a shred of doubt” has challenged that view within the agency. He said the CIA still has not concluded that Hussein is alive, despite his repeated appearances on Iraqi television.
Some experts on Iraq remain skeptical, however, noting that the Clinton administration fired a volley of cruise missiles at the same compound -- also relying on intelligence that Hussein was there -- at the outset of Operation Desert Fox, a 70-hour bombing campaign in December 1998. Neither Hussein nor his daughter was present at the time, Iraqi officials said later.
A former intelligence official said the Dora Farm complex is about 700 yards long and 300 yards wide. It sits on a sandy alluvial plain on a sliver of land that juts into the Tigris River. Before the war, Hussein often kept his presidential yacht at a nearby dock.
High walls surround the eastern corner of the compound. Inside are five major villas and about 10 smaller buildings used as barracks, guard posts and supply depots by members of the Special Security Organization, the Special Republican Guard and other security teams.
Sen. Rockefeller insists that the CIA had “a real target of opportunity.”
But Rockefeller faulted the Bush administration for counting on the intense bombing that followed the first night’s airstrike to provide the leverage to get Iraqi leaders to switch sides.
“There was such faith in ‘shock and awe’ it led to the conclusion it had to be a terribly short war,” he said. “I think we’re in for a much longer haul than we expected.”
Times staff writer Sonni Efron contributed to this report.