The United States is poised to launch its third major military strike against Iraq since the 1991 Gulf War. This latest tussle is over Iraq’s refusal to admit American members of a U.N. inspection team into its military facilities. Iraq has scoffed at new U.N. sanctions that punish its intransigence and has threatened to shoot down U.S. surveillance planes. Bill Clinton calls this a “nightmare scenario.” What has happened to Iraq since the war? How strong is its economy? Dictator Saddam Hussein? Its military?
In the final days of the Gulf War, most American strategists anticipated that a decisive Iraqi defeat would lead to a coup against a weakened Saddam Hussein. These strategists overestimated the damage–both physical and psychological–inflicted by the war. Saddam remains powerful, and Iraq repaired major infrastructural damage–to roads, industry, and communications–within four years of the war.
Economic sanctions imposed by the United Nations have been more injurious to Iraq than the war was. The sanctions 1) prevent Iraq from accessing billions held in foreign banks and 2) embargo all trade. Since 1990, Iraq’s gross domestic product has shrunk an average of 35 percent each year. Inflation is rampant: In 1993, a U.S. dollar fetched 54 Iraqi dinar; today, it buys approximately 2,500. The Iraqi standard of living has suffered: More than 20 percent of Iraqis live in poverty, up from 5 percent at the beginning of the war. And the United Nations estimates that 5,000 children die each month from malnutrition and disease. The middle class has been hit especially hard. Crime, prostitution, and black-market trading are also said to have become endemic.
U.N. resolutions require that sanctions remain in place until Iraq destroys its capacity for creating chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. Last December, the United Nations eased up on the sanctions, allowing Iraq to sell $2-billion worth of oil every six months on the condition that the profits go toward food for Iraq’s people and war reparations to Kuwait.
The economic decline has not destabilized Saddam’s regime. This is due largely to its repressive state security apparatus, which Saddam modeled on the Soviet KGB and East German Stasi in the ‘70s. Three major domestic intelligence agencies report directly to him, and each reports on the other two as well as on civilians. Assassination, torture, and a network of informers keep the masses in line. Families left behind by defectors are routinely shot.
Saddam’s perpetual war with the United States plays well domestically as Iraqis continue to stew over the damage left behind by the Gulf War defeat. Also, Saddam has bolstered Iraqi nationalism by linking his regime with the ancient Babylonian empire, constructing massive monuments that celebrate the parallels.
How does Saddam fund these projects? Speculation: 1) through the covert shipment of oil to Iran; 2) from the approximately $300-million worth of oil the United Nations lets him sell to Jordan each year; 3) by skimming funds from the sanctioned sale of $2 billion in oil that is supposed to buy food for his people; 4) from a secret Swiss bank account; 5) by playing the oil futures market, which he manipulates by creating the impression that the United Nations is about to lift the sanctions in reward for his changed conduct.
Saddam has no viable opponents. Iraq is dominated by a Sunni Muslim minority, which crushed a spontaneous 1991 rebellion by the Shiite majority. Since then, the Shiites have been passive. Saddam’s family and tribe, who hold significant power, could also challenge him. There are rumors that a cousin attempted to kill him last year. But Saddam has kept the family in line. Following a recent spat with his son Uday–who heads the state-run TV station and newspaper–Saddam burned Uday’s $16-million antique car collection. When a son-in-law defected to Jordan in 1995, Saddam enticed him back to Iraq with promises of forgiveness, but then had him assassinated.
S addam’s other potential adversary–the Kurdish minority in the north–has been hobbled by infighting and direct repression. This non-Arab ethnic group makes up 15 percent of Iraq’s population. But the Kurds are too busy fighting one another to threaten Saddam. Last year, Saddam allied with the Kurdish Democratic Party–which he bombarded with cyanide and mustard gas in 1988–to seize Irbil, the most important Kurdish city. This campaign dislodged Western aid workers, several thousand U.S. troops stationed there, and a CIA outpost. It also provided an opportunity for Saddam’s intelligence groups to infiltrate Kurdish ranks. Iraq’s attack violated the 1991 cease-fire limitations, so the United States punished it by bombing military targets in the south.
A 30,000-man unit called Saddam’s Commandos, led by one of his sons, also snuffs out unrest. Last summer the unit, which watches for signs of a military coup, executed 120 soldiers suspected of planning a rebellion.
Since the 1991 cease-fire, U.N. inspectors have largely disarmed Saddam’s nuclear, chemical, and biological arsenal, using random inspections and surveillance cameras to do their work. During the recent standoff, Iraq tampered with monitoring equipment, and the fear is that the Iraqis will use this window to create a cache of chemical weapons. This is not the first prolonged interruption of inspections. On dozens of occasions, Iraqis have refused to admit inspectors to facilities. In January 1993, the Bush administration launched cruise missiles at Baghdad to force compliance.
What has inspired Saddam’s most recent flexing? Having fractured the international coalition, Saddam no longer fears the prospect of invasion from the coalition: Nations like France, Russia, and China have sworn to veto any U.N. military action because they want to protect the post-sanctions oil deals they’ve penned with Iraq. These countries only reluctantly agreed to this week’s new U.N. sanctions that bar international travel by Iraqi officials linked to the inspection dispute. Also, Saddam is taking advantage of the current Arab backlash against the United States, sparked by the latter’s failure to broker a peace settlement with Israel. Even moderate Egypt has expressed sympathy for Saddam.
The United States is ready for war, having amassed more than 20,000 troops in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. There are currently 11 U.S. Navy warships in the Persian Gulf carrying cruise missiles capable of hitting Baghdad. Iraq has backed down before on its demands that the U.N. teams leave. The U.S. has never backed down.
Iraq is weak, but it could still wage a fierce ground war. Its 300,000-strong army is one-third the size of the one that went into the Gulf War, but it is better trained. Since the cease-fire, Saddam has continued to build conventional arms for these forces under the watchful eye of the U.N. inspectors. The inspectors report that Iraq has a handful of missiles, including SCUDS, capable of traveling 370 miles; and at least a small stockpile of VX gas, one of the deadliest chemical weapons. VX gas is banned under the terms of the cease-fire.