Hunting Saddam: Iraqi Leader Saddam Hussein Has Survived Covert Efforts to Eliminate Him, but He May Be Facing the Endgame. (Iraq)
Blanche, Ed, The Middle East
On the evening of 27 February 1991, only hours before George W. Bush's father called a halt to Operation Desert Storm, two US Air Force F-111 bombers, callsigns Cardinal 1 and 2, dropped two 4,700-pound penetration bombs on an underground bunker near the Al Taji air base, northwest of Baghdad, which senior Iraqi commanders were known to use.
The huge bombs, known as GBU-28s, had been specially made to target Saddam Hussein and had arrived at Taif air base in Saudi Arabia from Florida aboard a giant C-141 transport only five hours earlier.
The raid was the Americans' last desperate bid to kill the Iraqi leader before the ceasefire took effect. Cardinal 1 swept in from the east and dropped its bomb, but it missed. Cardinal 2 scored a direct hit, destroying the bunker buried 15 metres underground, which earlier strikes with 2,000-pound "penetrators" had failed to knock out. Several hours later US military commanders learned that Saddam had not been in the bunker, as they had hoped.
Now, 12 years on, Saddam faces renewed attempts to kill him as George W. Bush picks up where his father left off. But this time, the game has changed. Bush the younger is out to wipe the slate clean and seems to be prepared to rid himself of the troublesome tyrant by any and all means. He wants Saddam out of the way, "dead or alive". He said the same thing about Osama bin Laden, but that nemesis still eludes the American president. Without Bin Laden's scalp on his belt, Saddam has become a convenient substitute. White House spokes- man Ari Fleischer made it abundantly clear on 1 October that the administration would be only too happy to see Saddam assassinated--by his own people, of course. US law prohibits the assassination of foreign leaders, but Fleischer's comments were the bluntest made by a senior administration official about the options of achieving "regime change" in Iraq without a war. Asked about congressional cost estimates of $9 billion-$13 billion for a war against Iraq, he said: "I can only say that the cost of a one-way ticket is substantially less than that. The cost of one bullet, if the Iraqi people take it upon themselves, is substantially less than that." He hastened to add: "This is not a statement of administration policy. The point is that if the Iraqis took matters into their own hands, no one around the world would shed a tear ... Regime change is welcome in whatever form it takes."
Whatever way Bush and his advisers put it, there seems little doubt that the decision has been made to kill Saddam if the opportunity presents itself. The brutal dictator that Senator Trent Lott, the Republican leader, has taken to calling "So Damn Insane", is firmly in the administration's crosshairs again.
During the six-week air campaign in 1991, 260 of 36,046 "strike sorties" were designated "L" for leadership. That was less than 1% of the bombing missions, but these attacks, which targeted Saddam's palaces and other buildings he was known to frequent, were intended to decapitate the regime. No doubt, similar attacks will be mounted in the war that is looming.
Robert M. Gates, then a National Security Adviser and later director of the CIA, recalled that the White House of Bush the elder "lit a candle every night and hoped that Saddam Hussein would be killed in a bunker. Those candles will be lit again if we have to bomb again. Command and control sites will be targeted and we hope that Saddam is in one of them."
Assassinating Saddam would be the most obvious and expedient way of getting rid of him. But it is prohibited by Executive Order No. 11905 signed by President Gerald Ford on 18 February 1976, following political scandals caused by bungled CIA efforts to assassinate foreign leaders in the 1960s and early 1970s. The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence concluded on 20 November 1975 that plots against five foreign leaders under Presidents Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon were deliberately organised in terms "so ambiguous that it is difficult to be certain at what levels assassination activity was known and authorised."
That 22-word document was endorsed by three successive presidents--Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George Bush (the elder) and was enshrined in its present form--"No person employed or acting on behalf of the United States government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassinations"--by Executive Order No. 12333, signed by Reagan, on 4 December 1981. But this has not prevented the US from carrying out operations against foreign leaders, usually under the guise of "military operations" rather than singling out individuals, a fine distinction by any standards.
Since 11 September 2001, demands that the presidential ban on assassinations be rescinded--which Bush the younger can do without consulting lawmakers--have swelled significantly with little public opposition. How far tempers have cooled amid the beat of Bush's war drums is not clear, but only a few political voices have cautioned against removing such restraints that would mark a dramatic change in the ethics of US foreign policy. If Bush formally declares war against Iraq, Saddam would automatically become a legitimate target.
Secretary of State Colin Powell has said that rules governing military and intelligence operations, including Ford's 1976 ban on assassinations, were under review. "We have to have the authority to assassinate people before they can assassinate us," said Senator Bob Graham, who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee. Given Bush's warlike rhetoric and his espousal of pre-emptive strikes against those deemed enemies of the US, it would seem reasonable to assume that he is in favour of lifting the ban. Shortly after the carnage of 11 September, 2001, he was re-ported to have signed a more comprehensive "presidential finding" which concluded that the executive orders banning assassination did not prevent the president from lawfully singling out a terrorist for death by covert action by intelligence agencies. Whether that would cover Saddam is not clear, but given Bush's efforts to link the Iraqi leader to Al Qaeda, that is probably the case. On 17 September 2001, six days after the suicide attacks on America, Bush declared Osama bin Laden was "wanted dead or alive". Fleischer said Executive Order 12333 remained in effect, but insisted that "it does not inhibit the nation's ability to act in self-defence." No doubt this could be bent to include Saddam and his cronies. Away from the legalistic hoops of the presidential orders, the ban has left some wriggle room and US administrations have shown little hesitation in targeting foreign leaders with military force, actions in which different legal instruments are employed than in covert CIA operations.
The Reagan administration hatched several plots to eliminate Muammar Gadaffi. None of them came to anything, but on the night of 5 April 1986, US bombers attacked Benghazi and Tripoli, including the El Azziziya Barracks where Gadaffi was sleeping in a tent. Planners insisted that they were not targeting him, but no one would have been upset if he had been killed.
The issue arose again with Bush the elder's invasion of Panama on 29 December 1989 by 24,000 troops who seized General Manuel Noriega, an indicted drug trafficker accused of threatening US lives, and removed him from power. Abraham Sofaer, then the State Department's chief legal adviser, said that both the Reagan and Bush administrations had "concluded that the assassination prohibition relates to assassination, which is really a form of murder, and that military actions do not constitute assassinations". During the 1999 NATO air campaign against Yugoslavia, President Slobodan Milosevic's mansion was attacked, even though assassinating him was not supposed to be an option for the US. The then US deputy attorney-general, Eric Holder, said the bombing of Milosevic's home was within the guidelines given to the military by the Justice Department, which included "military command and control facilities". The scenario of senior Iraqis overthrowing Saddam--the so-called "silver bullet" approach--has been central to CIA efforts to bring down the Baghdad regime. But Saddam, paranoid about his personal security, has repeatedly thwarted several assassination plots by those around him.
Israel's intelligence service Mossad is reported to have tried several times to kill him. In 1991, there were reports that the agency had a team operating undercover in Baghdad when Saddam invaded Kuwait, but failed to find an opportunity to kill him once hostilities began even though some of the agents were said to have been close to senior army officers and Baath Party leaders. The agents were said to have been smuggled out of Iraq into Turkey disguised as Kurdish refugees.
After the Gulf War, Ehud Barak, then Israeli chief of staff devised a plan to assassinate Saddam. It involved infiltrating a team from the famed Sayaret Matkal, the army's elite commando unit, armed with short-range missiles into western Iraq where Saddam was known to visit.
The project was cancelled after five of the Sayaret soldiers were killed and six wounded by an errant missile during the final rehearsal for the operation at the Tze'elim army base in the Negev Desert on 5 November 1992. The military mounted an elaborate disinformation effort, claiming the deaths were the result of a routine training exercise. However, it was understood that Sayaret team would have been inserted by air into Iraq (and presumably extracted the same way) with the operation coordinated by senior Israeli officers flying in a command aircraft, probably circling over the Gulf. On 16 July 1996, Israel Television reported that several days earlier Saddam had escaped an assassination attempt by the skin of his teeth when a bomb exploded in one of his palaces minutes after he had left the building. It was not clear who was responsible, but the Tehran-based Supreme Assembly of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, an Iraqi Shiite organisation opposed to the Baghdad regime, reported at about the same time that as many as 400 army officers had been executed for plotting a coup, with hundreds more arrested.
In February 1998, the Israelis were reported to be working with the US military on another plan to assassinate Saddam, possibly with a bomb, if Israel came under attack by Iraq. But again, as far as is known, no action was ever taken on the project.
The Clinton administration was primarily confined to a policy of "containing" Saddam, but it also authorised the biggest CIA operation since the 1979-89 Afghan War in an attempt to undermine his rule. A 1994-95 CIA-sponsored plot involving exiled Iraqi military and political leaders based in Amman to get senior Iraqi army officers to kill or seize Saddam and establish a new regime fell apart disastrously after Saddam's agents infiltrated the group and executed those involved inside Iraq.
In August 1995, CIA agents had to flee Iraqi Kurdistan, protected since 1991 by an allied no-fly zone, when Saddam sent his troops in to teach Kurdish rebels a lesson. But now by all accounts the CIA, as well as military Special Forces teams, is back in northern Iraq and plotting to get Saddam. With Israeli commandos reported to be scouting missile sites in western Iraq in anticipation of Iraqi attacks if the US launches its war, the Sayaret may well be poised to go after their long-sought quarry once again.…
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Publication information: Article title: Hunting Saddam: Iraqi Leader Saddam Hussein Has Survived Covert Efforts to Eliminate Him, but He May Be Facing the Endgame. (Iraq). Contributors: Blanche, Ed - Author. Magazine title: The Middle East. Publication date: January 2003. Page number: 10+. © 2009 IC Publications Ltd. COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group.
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