Destroyed but saved?

Three riddles from the second Gulf War


Having been carpet-bombed by CNN, Al-Jazeera, the BBC, and several other weapons of mass media, I've decided to watch the latest Gulf war differently than that of 1991. Rather than trying to figure out what is happening on the ground, where Iraqi resistance has held me up, I found it useful to focus on more arcane, miscellaneous aspects of this war.

Here are some items on my checklist. For example, what happened to Iraq's former military chief-of-staff, Nizar Khazraji? Recently, Khazraji, who fled Baghdad some years ago, was languishing in Denmark while a magistrate investigated his possible war crimes against the Kurds during the 1980s. The general had hoped to use a US invasion of Iraq to resume contact with his onetime comrades and help overthrow the regime of Saddam Hussein.

On March 17, Khazraji disappeared from the Danish town of Soroe, and his family put out word that Iraqi agents had possibly kidnapped him. No one, least of all the magistrate investigating Khazraji, truly bought this. It now seems his flight was planned. Several reports, all unconfirmed, suggested Khazraji had made his way to the Gulf to help the American war effort.

Two things are interesting in the affair. First, did the US help Khazraji flee, undermining a judicial inquiry in a sovereign country? There is no evidence it did, but if Khazraji were to appear at the door of American commander Tommy Franks, would he be turned away? And if he were not, how would Denmark (a "coalition of the willing" member) feel about being allied to someone it had placed under house arrest?

A second item of attention is the US mania for declaring key Iraqis dead. I have distracted myself in the past days by ascertaining which departed official was later resurrected. Soon after the war began, US sources claimed three Iraqi officials, Taha Yassin Ramadan, Izzat Ibrahim, and Ali Hassan al-Majid, had been killed in the "decapitation attack" of Wednesday.

However, Ramadan later appeared at a press conference, while The New York Times quoted military sources as saying that Ali Hassan al-Majid had been the target of a Friday attack on Baghdad—confirming he had survived his earlier elimination. Only Izzat Ibrahim remains unaccounted for. The real loser, however, is the Bush administration, which again stalwartly tried to dispute assertions that it was Saddam Hussein who addressed Iraqis on Monday.

Lying is fair in war, but losing credibility is silly. While the press corps becomes angrier at the fluff Franks is throwing its way in Qatar, Iraq is winning the public relations battle. When the commander of Iraq's 51st Division told Al-Jazeera that he had not surrendered as coalition officers stated, he did something remarkable: he proved that Iraqi information minister Muhammad Saeed al-Sahhaf, who had denied the story, could tell the truth.

A third item of interest is the fate of the so-called Rumsfeld doctrine. In planning the war, the secretary of defense advocated a strategy of military calibration, whereby his forces would use speed to outmaneuver the Iraqis, while exerting only enough force to ensure victory. His idea was to avoid a massive assault that would kill many Iraqi civilians, make the US unpopular, and so undermine postwar American political objectives.

Lined up against Rumsfeld were supporters of the Powell doctrine. This holds, among other things, that US forces must use overwhelming firepower in war, for their own safety. Epitomizing this doctrine was the massive bombing of Iraqi soldiers in Kuwait in 1991, before ground troops ever entered the fray. The question today is whether the US, as it faces tough Iraqi resistance, will jettison Rumsfeld's style and fall back on Powell's?

If it does, this would splendidly invert roles in Washington: Rumsfeld, who is considered a fire-eater, would emerge as the restrained one—someone who wants to use force sparingly to avoid casualties and reduce Iraqi resentment. The Powell-ites, who are seen as moderates by association with the reluctant warrior, Secretary of State Colin Powell, would, instead, be seen as favoring a strategy that ensures few American, but many Iraqi, casualties.

Each of these three items is fundamental for a deeper understanding of the Bush administration's intentions in Iraq. Khazraji, whatever his checkered past, may well be a linchpin in the strategy to turn the Iraqi army against Saddam. This suggests Washington will be less than discerning when it comes to including former regime figures in a postwar administration.

The fascination with the health of the Iraqi leadership speaks to a noxious administration yearning to resolve the complex Iraqi issue with a single bullet or cruise missile. This approach is absurd given that Iraqis are fighting with abandon, and not just because they believe their leaders to be alive and well. There is nationalism involved, and the US has erred in playing this down.

And finally, the debate between Rumsfeld and Powell may seem esoteric, but it underlines the dilemma the US faces in its efforts to control Iraq. Rumsfeld's method makes sense: you cannot convert Iraq to democracy and pro-Americanism by pounding it into the dust. But if you do not do so, there is a chance the US might not triumph militarily at all.

How the US resolves this dilemma is the real issue today, and that's what I'll be watching for when we next hear a US official declare that Iraq has to be destroyed in order to be saved.