Covert U.S. aid to oust Hussein urged by Saudis Allies would arm Kurds, Muslims


WASHINGTON -- Saudi Arabia is pressing the Bush administration to organize a large covert action campaign in Iraq aimed at dividing Iraq's army and toppling Saddam Hussein, U.S. and allied officials say.

The Saudi initiative seeks an allied effort to supply arms and intelligence to Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq, Shiite Muslim fighters in the south and Sunni Muslim opposition forces in central Iraq. The aim is to draw out and divide President Hussein's last Republican Guard divisions protecting his strongholds around Baghdad and subject them to allied air assaults.

Saudi advocacy for a new and more aggressive campaign comes as the Bush administration is considering new steps to support Iraqi resistance forces with allied military power and to exploit growing tensions in the Iraqi leadership in a manner that would hasten Mr. Hussein's downfall while leaving the formation of a successor government clearly in Iraqi hands.

The White House remains deeply concerned that the Iraqi leader is still in power at the outset of a presidential election year in which his survival has become a political issue.

U.S. and allied officials discussed those plans with a reporter because some believe that the disclosure will by itself instill confidence in Iraqi opposition forces, while others, who oppose some of the proposals, hope that public knowledge will provoke a cautionary public or congressional response.

Substantial military forces from the United States, Britain, France and Saudi Arabia remain in the Persian Gulf area. U.S. military leaders, including Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have cautioned that any effort to dislodge Mr. Hussein from Baghdad would require a major new deployment, including ground combat forces, to the region, a prospect that would increase the political risks for President Bush in an election year.

In the initial postwar period, the administration relied principally on sanctions to weaken the Iraqi leader. But by last fall, Mr. Hussein's grip on power seemed to be strengthening, and he appeared to be exploiting the humanitarian crisis in Iraq to break the international coalition against him.

Then, when intelligence reporting indicated a fracturing of unity in Mr. Hussein's inner circle, the White House began preparing for more aggressive steps to seize opportunities that might arise to topple him.

In addition to the Saudi option of secretly arming guerrilla forces, a senior Bush administration official said in an interview last week that the administration has considered coordinating its efforts with Kurdish and Shiite forces inside Iraq to foment a coup for which Iraqi military commanders would seek allied support.

That Saudi-backed option would require a major allied air campaign over Iraq and possibly the reintroduction of U.S. ground troops in the region, military officials said.

U.S. and allied officials interviewed over the last several weeks indicated that no decisions had been made and that no final package of options had been presented to Mr. Bush. The planning is being coordinated by the so-called Deputies Committee, which includes senior officials from the Pentagon, the State Department, the CIA and the National Security Council.

The senior official who discussed the possibility of aiding a coup attempt said that Kurdish guerrillas in the north and Shiite Muslim resistance forces in the south "can be a dimension of an approach" to attack Mr. Hussein's power base.

But he said the key to a successful overthrow of the Iraqi leader remained the defeat or neutralization of the five of seven Republican Guard divisions that are stationed in the greater Baghdad area.

The official said that there must be a broad-based, national character to a successful opposition to Mr. Hussein, including participation by Kurds, Shiites and the minority Sunni Muslims who have long been the leadership class in the country.

"Sooner or later, I am convinced that the people Saddam depends on will turn on him as a dead end," the official said.

Mr. Bush, in his statement Thursday on the anniversary of the beginning of the war that reversed Iraq's occupation of Kuwait, praised "the efforts of thousands of brave Iraqis who are resisting Saddam's rule."

The senior official said the statement was part of a U.S. bid to nurture and develop an Iraqi resistance.

Among the covert action options that Saudi Arabia is promoting is the formation of arms supply and guerrilla warfare networks organized by allied intelligence services that could challenge poorly trained Iraqi army units in the rural areas of northern and southern Iraq.

If guerrilla forces seized Iraqi territories, Mr. Hussein would be forced either to cede control of those areas or to send his best Republican Guard units out from Baghdad. At that point, the rebels would be protected by allied air power, in the view of Saudi officials and some Iraqi opposition leaders.

The key to supporting guerrilla operations would be to prevent Mr. Hussein's Republican Guard units from employing attack helicopters and their three heavily armed armored divisions against an assault by allied-backed resistance groups.

"There has to be a combination of a major covert operation and a major air operation, and then leave the rest to the Iraqi people," said a senior allied official who has been discussing strategy with administration aides.

Kurdish guerrillas already control much of northern Iraq. But the Kurdish leadership is divided over whether to launch a direct challenge to Mr. Hussein. Shiite resistance in the south is much less organized and not well understood by allied officials, but Shiite opposition leaders say they can step up guerrilla activities if they have arms and support from Saudi Arabia and the United States.

Saudi Arabia is willing to equip resistance forces with missiles that would be able to shoot down Iraqi helicopters and destroy armored vehicles, a senior allied official said.

In November, the Deputies Committee asked the Joint Chiefs of Staff to develop military plans for a U.S. response to any request for assistance from Iraqi commanders plotting against Mr. Hussein. The White House request to the Joint Chiefs coincided with a letter Mr. Bush sent to Saudi Arabia's King Fahd pledging Mr. Bush's determination to achieve the overthrow of Mr. Hussein and to continue providing adequate military forces in the region to do that.

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