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Tuesday, October 8, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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8 questions about Iraq: Issues shape the debate in Congress

The Washington Post

Congress plans this week to debate a joint resolution that would give President Bush broad powers to disarm Iraq — including the authority to invade the country and depose President Saddam Hussein.

The resolution is expected to pass easily, in part because leading Democrats want the issue of war behind them, and in part because of widespread agreement on Capitol Hill that Saddam must be dealt with. There is also general agreement that, if it comes to war, the United States would win.

But beyond this first level of agreement lie major disputes over important questions that frame the risks and assumptions of the U.S. approach. Here are eight of the most important:

1) Can Saddam be "contained" and "deterred"?

For almost 50 years of the Cold War, the United States faced an enemy armed with thousands of high-yield bombs mounted on sophisticated missiles and avoided a direct military confrontation. How? By "containing" the enemy — that is, trying to prevent communist expansion — and "deterring" attacks with threats of apocalyptic retaliation.

Some experts believe this strategy, applied aggressively, can work with Iraq. Containment and deterrence are the U.S. policy for dealing with Iran, which is widely believed to be more advanced in nuclear capability and deeply involved in supporting terrorists. Brent Scowcroft, the national security adviser to then-President George H.W. Bush, recently argued that Saddam is "unlikely to risk his investment in weapons of mass destruction, much less his country, by handing such weapons to terrorists" or by using them for blackmail. "While Saddam is thoroughly evil, he is above all a power-hungry survivor."

Saddam's behavior has not always squared with this view. In 1993, he tried to use secret agents to assassinate George H.W. Bush, and Iraqi guns routinely fire at allied aircraft over Iraqi "no-fly" zones. But proponents of continued containment think there is a line the Iraqi leader will not cross for fear of the consequences.

This assumption drives the thinking of figures such as Morton Halperin of the Council on Foreign Relations, who advocates a policy of tougher weapons inspections and a more-effective embargo on trade with Iraq. This strategy, "if pursued vigorously ... will, in fact, succeed in preventing Saddam from using weapons of mass destruction or supplying them to terrorist groups," Halperin recently assured Congress.

But many people — among them President Bush — believe deterrence is no longer enough after Sept. 11, 2001, not when weapons might be delivered secretly to fanatics willing to vaporize themselves in an attack.

2) Is Saddam in league with al-Qaida?

Though administration officials have charged that al-Qaida operatives are living in Iraq, the same is believed to be true of more than 50 other countries. Daniel Benjamin, former director of counterterrorism for the National Security Council, recently argued that secular Iraq and fundamentalist al-Qaida are natural rivals, not co-conspirators.

But if the answer is yes, it strengthens the case for moving quickly.

The same gaps in intelligence gathering that make it hard to know whether Saddam deals with al-Qaida make it dangerous to assume he doesn't, retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney told a Senate hearing.

"We face an enemy that makes its principal strategy the targeting of civilians. ... We should not wait to be attacked with weapons of mass destruction," he warned.

3) Is disarmament possible without "regime change"?

No one in the mainstream believes Saddam will disarm voluntarily, but some experts — including Secretary of State Colin Powell — entertain the possibility he will if it is his last hope of survival.

That said, skepticism is very high that the Iraqi weapons problem can be solved while Saddam runs the country. Finding and destroying offending weapons now would not prevent the regime from developing new ones after the inspectors leave.

Even many proponents of renewed U.N. weapons inspections see them mainly as a tool for building international support for war. As Gen. Wesley Clark, a former supreme commander of NATO, put it: "The closer we get to the use of force, the greater the likelihood that we're going to see movement on the part of Iraq — even though it's a very small likelihood. And the more we build up the inspections idea, the greater the legitimacy of the United States effort in the eyes of the world."

4) In the event of war, what would Saddam's military do?

Two scenarios, one ghastly, one hopeful.

In the first, his commanders fire chemical and biological weapons into Israel, trying to ignite a pan-Arabic war, and lob gas bombs at U.S. troops. In the other, Iraqi officers refuse to commit such war crimes in the face of certain defeat and turn on the dying regime.

"Most of the army does not want to fight for Saddam," McInerney maintained. "We are already seeing increasing desertions from the regular army as well as the Republican Guards." He cited reports that Saddam has arrested or executed scores of disaffected officers, and won't allow even some elite Republican Guard units into Iraq's cities, for fear of a coup. "That's why I think there will not be urban fighting."

Gen. Joseph Hoar, retired commander in chief of the U.S. Central Command, sees it differently. "The nightmare scenario is that six Iraqi Republican Guard divisions and six heavy divisions, reinforced with several thousand anti-aircraft artillery pieces, defend the city of Baghdad. The result would be high casualties on both sides, as well as in the civilian community ... (and) the rest of the world watches while we bomb and have artillery rounds exploded in densely populated Iraqi neighborhoods," Hoar testified before Congress. "It looks like the last 15 minutes of 'Saving Private Ryan.' "

5) What would the Iraqi people do?

Again, two scenarios (always with the possibility the truth is somewhere in between).

One emphasizes the relative sophistication and education of the Iraqi population, and its hatred for Saddam. These qualities, according to the optimists, would make the Iraqis unwilling to defend him, grateful for the arrival of American liberators and ready to build a new, pro-Western country. "We shall be greeted, I think, in Baghdad and Basra with kites and boomboxes," Arabist Fouad Ajami of Johns Hopkins University has predicted.

The aftermath of the war would not necessarily be chaos, Charles Duelfer, former U.N. arms inspector, has theorized. "There are national institutions in Iraq that hold the country together. The regular army. There's departments of agriculture, irrigation. There's a civil service."

The pessimistic view emphasizes the deep divisions in Iraq. There are Kurds in the oil-rich north, yearning for an independent state. There are Shiite Muslims concentrated in the south and seething at the discrepancy between their large numbers and small influence in Iraq. For all their education and institutions, Iraqis do not have experience with self-government. Iraq might trade one despot for another.

In this scenario, the only thing that can prevent a messy breakup of the former Iraq would be a long American occupation — a prospect the Bush administration has been reluctant to discuss.

6) How will the Middle East react to war, and to subsequent peace?

This may be the most potent of the unanswered questions. There seems to be agreement that rank-and-file Muslims won't like an American war in Iraq. Michael O'Hanlon, a defense analyst at the Brookings Institution, referred to the "Al-Jazeera effect" — millions of Muslims watching televised scenes of destruction and death, and blaming the United States. Halperin is one of many who have theorized al-Qaida recruiters would be inundated. "Certainly if we move before there is a Palestinian settlement ... what we will stimulate is a large number of people in the Arab world who will be willing to take up a terrorist attack on the United States and on Americans around the world."

According to Geoffrey Kemp, director of Regional Strategic Studies at the Nixon Center in Yorba Linda, Calif., "Iranians ... worry about a failed or messy U.S. operation that would leave the region in chaos. They would then be on the receiving end for possibly millions of new Iraqi Shi'a refugees." Mark Parris, an authority on Iraq's northern neighbor, Turkey, has raised the specter of war between Turks and Kurds over the oil cities of Mosul and Kirkuk. The fragile reign of Jordan's moderate King Abdullah II also would be shaken by an expected anti-American reaction among that nation's many Palestinians.

Against this, there is a school of thought that says a moderate government in Iraq could lead to modernization and liberalization throughout the region. "A year after (Saddam falls), Iran will get rid of the mullahs," McInerney predicted. "The jubilation that you see in Baghdad ... will change the whole tenor of the world."

7) Would a military campaign in Iraq help or hurt the war on terror?

Sources as diverse as the conservative Weekly Standard magazine and former President Clinton scoff at the idea that it's too much to pursue al-Qaida and deal with Iraq simultaneously. However, former NATO commander Clark worries about "a diversion of effort" on the part of U.S. military and intelligence forces, and Halperin counsels there is a limit on the number of things government bureaucracies can handle at one time.

But the deeper problem, many believe, is U.S. action in Iraq could spoil the spirit of cooperation with many nations — including many Arab nations — that is essential to fighting terror.

On the other hand, Gen. John Shalikashvili, retired chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — while insisting on the importance of building more international support for America's Iraq policy — has argued that dealing with Iraq cannot, ultimately, be separated from the war on terror: "The war against terrorism isn't just al-Qaida. ... It is also denying terrorists the means of getting to weapons of mass destruction."

8) In the end, will the U.S. be more secure?

The answer to this depends on answers to the previous seven. If Saddam is indeed impossible to deter and willing to engage in terror, if a new regime is the only way to eliminate the threat he poses, and if that can be done with a minimum of chaos and relatively few bad consequences — then the case for war might seem strong. But different answers change the equation dramatically.

In the coming debate, Americans can watch elected leaders wrestle with some or all of these disputes, but if the resolution passes, as expected, they will ultimately come to a final calculus on a single desk — the president's.

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