Sunday, September 30
After Afghanistan, could Iraq be next?
WASHINGTON, Sept 29 (AFP) -
The concentration of US forces around Afghanistan, particularly in the Gulf region, in response to the recent terror attacks on American soil, is reviving a debate here on whether to oust Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq.
The Iraqi leader, whose forces were booted out of Kuwait in 1991 by an international coalition led by former president George Bush, the father of the current US president, continues to hang on to power, fueling mounting frustration among US leaders who maintain large military forces around Iraq.
Although Washington admits it had so far no formal proof of Baghdad's involvement in the September 11 suicide airborne attacks on New York and Washington, many here stressed that Iraq remains a major threat.
Some point to possible contacts between one of hijackers, Mohamed Atta, and Iraqi intelligence or the arrest in Ecuador of seven Iraqis as part of the probe into terrorist networks.
Republican Senator Jesse Helms and other conservatives in Congress recently urged President George W. Bush to seize the opportunity provided by the global anti-terror campaign to oust Saddam Hussein.
"The first President Bush ought to have gotten rid of him (Saddam)," Helms said. "I say that with all due respect to the former president, but that was one of the major mistakes that was made at that time."
"The biggest difference is not yet evident. It will be about how to handle Saddam Hussein. There will be some people who would argue in favor of striking him hard. I think that would be the big debate," said Michael O'Hanlon, a foreign policy expert at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.
"I am not surprised there are different views," noted Walter Russell Mead, of the Council on Foreign Relations, pointing to the strong feelings in Washington over how to handle Iraq.
Divergences on the issue have surfaced between the Pentagon and the State Department.
Recent comments by Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, a "hawk" favoring a tough policy toward Baghdad, on the need to strike states sponsoring terrorism have rekindled speculation on need to take action against Iraq.
Secretary of State Colin Powell has repeatedly stated that the priority objective for Washington was hunting down Afghanistan-based Osama bin Laden, the Saudi-born militant seen by Washington as the mastermind of the September 11 attacks, and his network and not to attack specific countries.
But while suggesting that Baghdad would not be a target in the first phase of a US riposte, Powell stressed that there would be "phase two and phase three" without giving details.
"We have no illusions about Saddam Hussein (.) He's, of course, trying to develop weapons of mass destruction," Powell said. "For 10 years we have kept him contained and will continue to keep him contained. And, as you know, we always have the ability to strike if that seems to be the appropriate thing to do."
Contradictory signals from Washington have led many Arab countries to urge the United States to extend their military operations beyond Afghanistan.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher, who visited Washington this week, left reassured, saying the United States were focusing on bin Laden and did not plan to extend the confrontation.
Iraq has meanwhile repeated that he was not involved in the attacks.
Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tarek Aziz said on Thursday that Iraq had no links whatsoever with Afghanistan's Taliban regime or bin Laden.