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Hedging our bets in attack on Iraq


PHILADELPHIA -- So now we know where the administration wants to take Phase Two of the war on terrorism. The word from Washington is that President Bush has decided Saddam Hussein must be ousted.

The Bush team hasn't agreed yet on a plan for how to achieve this, and has indicated any military action is months off. But there is a disturbing tendency in hawkish administration circles to insist that a move against Iraq would be a cakewalk. Powerful Iraq hawks on the Bush team say that their preferred option is to copy the Afghanistan model: We bomb, and send in some commandos. Then, Iraqi rebels rise up and take the country -- just as the Northern Alliance took over Kabul.

This option is being widely promoted to the American public in op-ed columns that claim relatively few U.S. ground troops would be needed. I call it the Las Vegas Option, because it is based on a high-risk gamble, and the odds of success just aren't good enough.

Let me state for the record that I think the time has come to get rid of the Iraqi despot. Unlike the other members of the president's "axis of evil," Mr. Hussein's Iraq does threaten us and can't be contained through negotiations.

Although we have no hard evidence linking Baghdad with the events of Sept. 11, the Iraqi leader has trained terrorists in the past. He has also produced (and used) weapons of mass destruction. Most dangerous, he has shown he is a reckless man who doesn't understand normal limits. It isn't hard to imagine him passing off biochemical weapons to some terror gang in the future.

Were he removed, and normal leadership restored to Iraq, this threat would dissipate. Mr. Hussein's demise would shift the entire balance of power in the region for the better: Iraqis could rebuild their country; we could remove our controversial troop presence from Saudi Arabia; and Iranian democrats would be encouraged. The Israeli-Palestinian logjam might shift as Israelis became more sanguine about the prospect of long-term peace with the Arabs.

If we are going to go after Mr. Hussein, however, we cannot risk failure. Nor can we afford to delude Americans, or indicate to Iraqis, that we think this mission can be carried out on the cheap.

The Las Vegas Option does both. It wagers that the United States can dump Mr. Hussein without inserting any substantial number of U.S. troops or risking many casualties. It gambles that we will find Iraqis on the ground to do the actual fighting.

Launching a war based on such assumptions is as chancy as a throw of the dice.

There is no Northern Alliance in Iraq, no existing cadre of organized opposition forces on the ground on whom we can rely to take Baghdad. One prime reason no such groups exist today is that we repeatedly betrayed them. Most Iraqis devoutly wish Mr. Hussein gone, but they don't trust us to help them.

Iraqis have a decade of dark history from which to judge us. The Iraqi National Congress -- an exile group popular with Congress and the Defense Department -- was crushed by Mr. Hussein's troops in 1996 after the Clinton administration failed to come to the INC's aid.

Iraqi Kurds hate Mr. Hussein but are dubious about fighting Baghdad. They recall how Washington failed to support their attempts in 1991 and 1995. Iraqi Shiites in the south remember bitterly how Mr. Bush Sr. called for them to rebel in 1991, then let Mr. Hussein's troops slaughter them. Would-be Iraqi military rebels remember fumbled CIA efforts to organize a coup in 1996 that led to the execution of many Iraqi officers.

In truth, some military units may be willing to rebel, some Iraqis to rise again. But they will not risk torture and death unless the United States convinces them that, this time, it truly wants Mr. Hussein gone.

What would it take to convince the Iraqis? The Bush administration will have to act as if it were preparing to take Mr. Hussein out alone.

It means facing up to the fact that ousting Mr. Hussein won't be easy. We will be going it alone. European and Arab allies may or may not support us, but it won't be with troops or money.

It means moving tens of thousands of troops into Kuwait. It means pre-positioning forces in northern Iraq, to defend the Kurds should Mr. Hussein attack them, possibly with chemical weapons.

It means abandoning the assumption that air power alone, no matter how precise, can remove Mr. Hussein from power. It means being ready to use ground troops ourselves if the Iraqi military and civilian uprisings don't occur.

Only if we demonstrate that we are willing to spend blood and treasure will Iraqis be encouraged to risk their lives. Only then will our Arab allies believe we are serious and be ready to offer support.

At that point, we probably won't have to send our troops to Baghdad. The odds will have shifted to our side.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial board member for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may write to her at: Philadelphia Inquirer, P.O. Box 8263, Philadelphia, Pa. 19101, or by e-mail at trubin@phillynews.com.

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