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The Downing Plan

More grist for the mill.  (Please note my new email address: 

Old Strategy on Iraq Sparks New Debate 
Backers Say Plan Proven in Afghanistan 
By Michael Dobbs
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, December 27, 2001; Page A01 
Three years ago, the man who is now White House counterterrorism chief drew
up a plan for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. It was never implemented, but
from today's perspective, the strategy devised by retired Army Gen. Wayne A.
Downing for toppling a tyrannical regime has a familiar ring to it.
As presented to congressional leaders in a secret session in the summer of
1998, the Downing plan included several elements that have proved remarkably
successful in Afghanistan. A former U.S. Special Forces commander, Downing
believed that victory would be achieved through a potent combination of
U.S.-backed insurgents, massive enemy defections, elite special operations
units and U.S. air power.
Dismissed by Clinton administration officials as a recipe for a second Bay
of Pigs, the Downing plan has become highly topical since the Sept. 11
terror attacks and his own subsequent elevation to a key White House
position. The general's ideas have become a lightning rod for a new debate
in the Bush administration over what to do with Saddam Hussein, a durable
and ruthless dictator who is widely believed to be developing weapons of
mass destruction.
Supporters, who are believed to include Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D.
Wolfowitz and other important political appointees, argue that the Afghan
war has demonstrated the feasibility of the Downing plan, or something
similar to it, and that the moment for moving against Hussein is fast
Opponents, including much of the State Department, CIA and professional
military, say that the plan greatly overestimates the strength of the Iraqi
opposition, and particularly the Iraqi National Congress, a London-based
umbrella group that has established itself as a quasi government in exile.
In its original version, Downing's plan envisaged an initial commitment of
no more than 5,000 or 6,000 "crack troops" to defeat a demoralized Iraqi
army of a half-million men, assuming that U.S. warplanes were available to
destroy enemy troop concentrations. But more recently, Pentagon estimates of
what it will take to remove Hussein from power are being sharply increased,
according to administration and Iraqi opposition sources.
Bush administration officials opposed to an attack on Iraq have stressed the
differences with Afghanistan. "They're two different countries with
different regimes, two different military capabilities," Secretary of State
Colin L. Powell said recently. "They are so significantly different that you
can't take the Afghan model and immediately apply it to Iraq."
Military analysts point out that the Iraqi army is nearly 20 times the size
of the Taliban force, with 10 times as many tanks. The Iraqi opposition has
less experience fighting the regime than Afghanistan's Northern Alliance.
Most worrying of all, unlike the Taliban, Hussein may well have chemical and
biological weapons, or even a crude nuclear device.
Stephen J. Hadley, the White House deputy national security adviser, said in
an interview that the administration had done some "planning and thinking"
about Iraq in the spring and early summer, but the activity hit "a pause,"
partly because of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. He said the president and
his closest national security advisers were preoccupied with the hunt for
Osama bin Laden and had not addressed the Iraqi question "in any systematic
"We have a lot of business on our plate," he said. 
Nonetheless, the Bush administration has embraced the idea of regime change
in Iraq much more publicly than the Clinton administration did. The key
question facing President Bush when he eventually turns his attention back
to Iraq is whether this goal can be achieved at an acceptable political,
military and diplomatic cost.
Earlier attempts to overthrow Hussein were dismal failures. According to
Iraqi National Congress President Ahmed Chalabi, there have been half a
dozen U.S.-supported coup attempts or insurrections in Iraq since the 1991
Gulf War, all of them ruthlessly crushed by Hussein's internal security
forces. "Every Iraqi officer has drawn a lesson from all this: If you
associate yourself with a U.S. effort to get rid of Saddam Hussein, you will
be either arrested or killed," Chalabi said.
Popular uprisings against Hussein have fared little better. A Shiite
uprising in southern Iraq in 1991, a few weeks after the end of the war, was
put down by tanks and artillery.
A 1995 Kurdish insurrection in the north, half-heartedly backed by the CIA
and instigated by the Iraqi National Congress (INC), was crushed by Hussein
in 1996. He played one Kurdish faction off against another, executing more
than 100 Chalabi supporters and effectively expelling the INC from Iraq.
Chalabi blamed his defeat on inadequate support from the United States. A
former banker educated at the University of Chicago, he lobbied Congress to
pass what eventually became known as the Iraq Liberation Act, a 1998 law
that allocated $97 million to the training of anti-Hussein guerrilla groups.
In the process, Chalabi antagonized the Clinton administration, but won the
support of many conservatives, including Wolfowitz and his future boss,
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.
Both Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz signed a February 1998 letter to President
Clinton calling on the U.S. to support an Iraqi insurrection. Others who
signed the letter and are now in the Bush administration include White House
adviser Zalmay Khalilzad, Defense Department officials Douglas J. Feith and
Dov S. Zakheim, and State Department officials Richard L. Armitage, John R.
Bolton and Paula Dobriansky. (According to a State Department source,
Armitage has lined up behind Powell as a skeptic of the Iraqi National
Congress plan.)
Lending military respectability to Chalabi's ideas was Downing, a retired
four-star general who played a key role in overthrowing Panama's Manuel
Noriega in 1989 and ran insurgency operations in Iraq in 1991 as the head of
the Joint Special Operations Command. In the words of an INC official,
Downing agreed to put Chalabi's ideas into "Pentagonese."
Downing was assisted by a former CIA agent, Duane "Dewey" Clarridge, who ran
the U.S.-backed contras who fought the leftist Sandanista regime in
Nicaragua during the Reagan administration. Together, the two men drew up a
plan to train some 200 Iraqi National Congress fighters, who would train
another 5,000 men to be inserted into southern Iraq from Kuwait, where they
would seize a deserted air base near the city of Basra. According to
Clarridge, the logistical support operation for Chalabi's fighters would
have been "outsourced" to mercenaries, including retired U.S. Special Forces
"The idea from the beginning was to encourage defections of Iraqi units,"
recalled Clarridge, who was indicted for lying to Congress in connection
with the Iran-contra scandal but pardoned by President George Bush just
before the end of his administration. "You need to create a nucleus,
something for people to defect to. If they could take Basra [Iraq's
second-largest city and major port], it would all be over."
Even though it became the basis for the Iraq Liberation Act, the Downing
plan was savaged by much of the U.S. military establishment, including
officers of Central Command, or Centcom, which would bear responsibility for
military operations against Iraq. Last year, Gen. Anthony C. Zinni, then
Centcom's commander, derided the plan as a prescription for a "Bay of Goats"
dreamed up by "some silk-suited, Rolex-wearing guys in London." In testimony
to Congress, Zinni said he had counted 91 different Iraqi opposition groups,
not one of which had "the viability to overthrow Saddam."
Richard Perle, an assistant defense secretary during the Reagan
administration andintellectual force behind the anti-Hussein campaign,
called Zinni's comments "outrageous."
Perle said, "It is not easy to get allies [for such an operation] when you
have the Centcom commander saying it can't work." He argued that the Afghan
military campaign shows that it will be virtually impossible for Hussein to
mass his forces without getting hit by U.S. warplanes.
Iraq "is like a hornet's nest," says Michael Rubin, a scholar from the
Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who has traveled widely in
Kurdish-controlled sectors of northern Iraq. "And when you are dealing with
a hornet's nest, you must either get rid of it or leave it alone. The worst
thing you can do is hit it once or twice with a stick, stir up all the
hornets, and then walk away."
Which, he added, is precisely what the United States has been doing for much
of the past decade.
The hornet's nest analogy refers in part to the country's complicated ethnic
makeup. The Kurds, who account for roughly 25 percent of the population, now
control the northern 10 percent of Iraq, with only minimal interference from
Hussein's security forces. The Shiites, who are strongest in southern Iraq,
make up more than 50 percent of the population.
Traditionally, Iraq has been ruled from the center, by minority Sunni Muslim
clans, with a population share of just 20 percent. (Hussein is a Sunni from
the town of Tikrit, on the Tigris River north of Baghdad.) The United States
has been very reluctant to interfere with this governing formula, which
helps explain why, up until recently, the preferred U.S. option for getting
rid of Hussein was through a coup d'etat among his ruling circle rather than
a Shiite or Kurdish insurrection.
If the insurrectionary route is chosen, the problem becomes which faction to
back. As an umbrella group claiming to represent many opposition groups,
Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress has enjoyed great support on Capitol Hill
because of its moderate, pro-Western views, but many U.S. officials doubt
that Chalabi has much influence inside Iraq.
While the Kurds can field the strongest fighting force against Hussein -- up
to 70,000 men,they have been let down and betrayed so many times in the past
that they are unlikely to join a new rebellion without "cast-iron guarantees
of success," in the words of a Kurdish official. Prior to a
Washington-brokered peace agreement in 1998, rival Kurdish factions spent
much of their energy fighting each other.
The most active opposition force in southern Iraq is an Iranian-backed
guerrilla group, the Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution in Iraq. Since
the draining of the marshes of southern Iraq by the Hussein regime, the
Supreme Council has switched its focus from liberating territory to a
low-level urban insurrection, including bombings and occasional mortar
attacks. The group has refused financial support from the United States on
the grounds that it does not want to be viewed as "American puppets."
"The Afghan model can be applied in Iraq, there is no difficulty about
that," said Hamid Bayati, the group's London representative. He added,
however, that Washington should work through the United Nations to cloak its
actions in Iraq in "international legitimacy." A serious U.S.-backed
insurrection will succeed, he said, but there is great skepticism about
half-hearted measures.
Similar reservations are evident among Iraq's neighbors, whose logistical
support would be essential to any successful U.S. effort to overthrow
Hussein. Advocates of the Downing plan said they believe they can count on
at least tacit support from Turkey and Iran, and possibly Saudi Arabia. But
the only country that seems willing to sign up in advance for such an
operation is Kuwait, which was liberated from Iraqi occupation by U.S.
forces in 1991.
 2001 The Washington Post Company 


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