Saddam’s Options


17 September 2002

Saddam’s Options

By Gwynne Dyer

Put yourself in Saddam Hussein’s boots. What are his options now?

There was a global sigh of relief when President George W. Bush went to the United Nations on Thursday of last week and said he would seek a Security Council resolution before attacking Iraq. The relief was even greater on Monday, when the UN received a letter from Saddam saying he would re-admit the arms inspectors without conditions. But in fact nobody is off the hook: what President Bush actually demanded was a Security Council resolution making so many demands that Saddam would be almost bound to reject it.

The Bush administration has not abandoned the goal of ‘regime change’ in Iraq; and nothing the UN does will change that. Either it gives Bush the resolution he wants, and Saddam rejects it: result, war. Or it doesn’t, in which case Bush acts unilaterally: war again. (The former outcome is more probable, since the other big powers have essentially decided that a veneer of legality must be laid over what the US is going to do anyway, to minimise the damage that Bush’s actions would otherwise do to the fragile edifice of international law.)

Going through the UN will not derail or even delay the Bush administration’s determination to overthrow Saddam. It merely legalises it, in return for a tip of Washington’s hat towards the principles of international law. And the war could come very quickly.

A US attack is unlikely before the US Congressional elections in ovember, and Bush would not want to plunge the US back into recession by launching a December attack that sends oil prices soaring and kills the great pre-Christmas retail binge. The smart money is still on a January war that ends before the heat gets too great in April, like Bush the Elder’s ‘Desert Storm’ offensive twelve years ago. But the soldiers can be ready much sooner.

If the US decides to strike directly at Iraq’s urban centres using light, air-mobile forces (the so-called ‘Outside-In’ option), it could happen within two weeks of the decision being taken: 30,000 of the 50,000 US troops required are already in the region. Even the heavy’ option, with up to a quarter-million American and British troops launching an invasion across the borders of Kuwait, Turkey and possibly Jordan, could start in mid-November if the orders were given today.

So what does Saddam do now? He has been told repeatedly by the Bush administration that the US wants to overthrow him — in practice, to kill him — no matter what he does, so he has little incentive to behave cautiously. He also has a well-established reputation for being a strategic gambler of near-lunatic boldness: consider the attack on Iran in 1980, or the invasion of Kuwait in 1990. We should therefore expect the unexpected.

The orthodox strategy, given US air superiority, would be to leave only poorly trained conscripts on the frontiers and pull the better troops back into the built-up areas. There they will be in the right place to suppress any revolts, and if US forces plunge into the cities after them the street-fighting would cause huge Iraqi civilian casualties (good for anti-US propaganda), and perhaps quite heavy American casualties too.

That was Saddam’s strategy in 1991, and it saved him then: US forces stopped once Kuwait was liberated. But Bush I had Arab coalition partners to keep happy, and a plan for a comprehensive Middle Eastern peace, and a keen awareness that the US public would not tolerate many American casualties. Bush II has no Arab allies willing to contribute troops anyway, no peace plan, and a clear belief that the US armed forces have invented a way to win wars without significant American casualties (though that belief has yet to be tested in urban warfare).

Saddam can play the ‘cities’ strategy and hope that mounting US casualties or uprisings in the wider Arab world will end the war before US forces find his bunker, but he could easily be dead before that happens. As a fall-back strategy it makes sense, but the current political situation in the Arab world creates opportunities he did not have in 1991, when most Arab leaders were furious at him for seizing Kuwait.

Nowadays Arab public opinion is inflamed by daily television images of Palestinians dying under the guns of the Israeli occupation forces, and sees the Bush administration as wholly in Israel’s pocket. So there is a potential for changing the subject that simply wasn’t there twelve years ago.

Saddam almost certainly still has a few Scud-B missiles hidden away. They are sixty-year-old technology and he probably has no ‘weapons of mass destruction’ to put on them, but they’ll reach Israel if he fires them from the westernmost part of Iraq, bordering Jordan. They would do little damage, but Israel would retaliate massively — and then the whole strategic context changes. It’s no longer just Saddam vs. the United States, but a full-blown regional crisis that offers a cunning leader like Saddam all sorts of possibilities.

If Saddam can get Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to attack Iraq before the US offensive starts — it would only be from the air, as Iraq and Israel have no common land border — then no Arab government could let US forces use its territory to join in the attack. Sharon, who has his own strategic goals, is just itching for a pretext to hit Iraq, and all Saddam needs to justify launching his Scuds is enough Palestinians killed by Israeli forces in one day. We should watch out for an October or November surprise.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4, 6 and 11. (“Going…quickly”; “If…today”; and “Nowadays…ago”)