Iraqi dissident KANAN MAKIYA, a fellow at Harvard's Center for Middle Eastern Studies and a visiting professor at Brandeis, is author of four books on Iraq, among them Republic of Fear, which is widely considered the authoritative account of Saddam Hussein's regime. Born and raised in Iraq, Makiya found that his support for Kurdish independence made it impossible for him to return after he had received his architect's degree at MIT in the mid-'70s. Between 1991 and 1996, however, he was able to travel to Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq. HAROLD MEYERSON interviewed him on Monday, February 16.

The Iraqi opposition movement is in a very bad state of repair. The big blow came in the summer of 1996, when Saddam Hussein went into the north as a result of internecine Kurdish fighting. Both Kurdish groups were members of the Iraqi National Congress; one of them felt its back was against the wall and called on Saddam Hussein to eliminate the other group. He destroyed the entire organizational infrastructure; hundreds of people were killed, thousands fled. Many years of work – surreptitious contacts with Baghdad, radio stations – all that was destroyed.

From its leaders down to the rank and file, the Iraqi opposition genuinely believed there was an understanding that the U.S. would not allow Saddam Hussein to use tanks in the no-fly zone [the Kurdish-controlled northern area] – that U.S. planes would shoot at those tank columns as they approached in '96. Today, the State Department denies that promise, but it does not deny that the Iraqi opposition was led to believe it. CIA officers who've since resigned support the claim of the opposition. There's been a lot of mudslinging within the administration over this mess. The U.S. assistant secretary of state for the Middle East, Robert Pelletreau, said he was not aware of any such commitment, but did not exclude the possibility of there being CIA “cowboys” – that was his word – acting on their own. CIA director John Deutsch denied there were any cowboys.

Since '96, political fragmentation, which was already a problem, and a feeling of despair have swept over the Iraqi opposition. It is possible for this to be reversed. The opposition, like the population of Iraq at large, feels itself completely abandoned. If there were any signs of support for a new type of polity in Iraq, this picture would change. And northern Iraq could easily become a base of operations again. Saddam Hussein still does not have full control of the north. His relations with the Barazani Kurds [the group that asked him in] have deteriorated.

But U.S. policy toward Iraq is completely bankrupt. What's called for is a total change in policy, and I don't think this is going to happen.

Every Iraqi dissident that I know of – not just of my kind of persuasion but nationalists, ex-Ba'athists, Islamicists, the whole mixed bag – are all against the proposed U.S. military action. To strike Iraq today with a more extended version of what the U.S. has done for the past seven years is wrong. It's likely to strengthen Saddam politically rather than weaken him.

Once again, American policymakers don't a 32 understand that one must think politically, not militarily, in these matters. That's the fundamental pattern of the Arab world, which Saddam knows very well, since the Suez crisis of 1956, which was a military defeat but a huge political victory for [Egyptian leader Abdel Gamal] Nasser. Saddam's strategy is to replay that event.

In the Gulf War, why didn't Saddam Hussein withdraw at the 11th hour, just before the ground war started? It wasn't that he thought he could hold Kuwait militarily. All he thought he had to do was inflict 1,000 casualties on American forces and they'd leave, as in Lebanon. This confirms his view of the meaning of 1956, the value of standing up to the West. He is playing the same game today.

So now, after three, four or five days of bombing, the people will have suffered, and he'll poke his head out and say, I told you so. He will emerge stronger, with the kind of meaningless issue of the weapons of mass destruction having been shelved.

I say “meaningless” not because I doubt his intention to use these weapons if it was in his interest; I don't even doubt that he has suitcases full of anthrax stuck in basements. The question is, Does he have the ability to deliver them? I very much doubt that. Iraq's ability to project itself beyond its own borders is virtually nil.

Clinton administration policy at the moment – it's just dumb. Saddam Hussein can immediately start making his weapons again [when the air raids are done], the know-how is still there. The U.S. cannot achieve what it says it wants to achieve with these air strikes.

What should the U.S. do? If I were President Clinton, I'd go on TV and say, We've come to the conclusion that we can never have any confidence that this regime will rehabilitate itself or give up its terrible weapons, and we now seek its overthrow. And we call upon the Iraqi opposition that believes in a federal and democratic future for this country, Kurds and Arabs alike, with a view to bringing this about. Two, we call for a no-fly zone over all of Iraq. Three, we're going to openly urge an international tribunal for the Saddam Hussein regime, as in the case of Bosnia. Fourth, we commit ourselves to aid in the reconstruction of Iraq [once the regime is replaced], with loans that will be repaid. This could easily be a prosperous country again; we're not sinking money down a rat hole here.

But the policy shouldn't include this military action. It would be politically wrong. Unless a bomb hits Saddam Hussein, which would be like finding the needle in the haystack, it will have a reverse effect. It will strengthen him.

In 1991, some Iraqis cheered the bombs coming down on their heads, and wanted the U.S. to finish the job. Then the U.S. did nothing as Saddam Hussein mowed down his own population. Today, that same population no longer has any confidence in the U.S. I don't know a single Iraqi who doesn't believe the U.S. ended the war the way it did because it wanted Saddam Hussein to stay in power. I myself don't believe this, but I understand how this has become the perception.

A tin-pot dictator is being inflated just by the virtue of the size of his enemy, the United States. He's been created as this global figure by the stupidity of operatives in the administration, at the time of the end of the Gulf War, and today, by the policy of Clinton.

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