WASHINGTON--Dr. Ahmed Chalabi, a member of the leadership council of the Iraqi National Congress, an umbrella organization of Saddam Hussein's opponents abroad, orders oatmeal for breakfast while others at the table tuck into fried eggs, a cheese omelet, bacon, ham, grits. Saddam has made (BEG ITAL)nine assassination attempts on him, but Chalabi evidently worries about the long-term menace of cholesterol. Like the girl in ``South Pacific,'' Chalabi is a cockeyed optimist.
If you are part of a political movement in exile, optimism is part of your job description. Bear that in mind as he answers the most pressing question confronting American policy-makers: How brittle is Saddam's regime?
So brittle, Chalabi says, that breaking it might require minimal U.S. forces on the ground. Saddam distrusts his military. There are, Chalabi says, no regular army or Republican Guard units in Baghdad--only special guards entrusted with protecting Saddam and presidential facilities.
Chalabi says the first step should be to supplement existing ``no-fly zones'' with ``no-drive zones'' from which the Iraqi military would be excluded. That, he thinks, could be done by U.S. air power directed, as in Afghanistan, by U.S. special forces on the ground. These zones should be in Iraq's north and south--and west, where Saddam might expand a war by launching missiles against Israel.
Then Chalabi thinks Saddam will have unpalatable choices. He can try to re-establish control of those areas, using old Soviet tanks vulnerable to U.S. aircraft or Iraqi opposition forces operating in light anti-armor units that could be trained in America in 11 weeks. Or Saddam can hunker down in Baghdad. But already, Chalabi says, opposition forces are conducting hit-and-run attacks in the capital almost daily. And if Saddam cedes control of no-drive zones, he will be deprived of oil export revenues. Besides, hunkering down is not his style.
Saddam's style--here Chalabi's scenario suddenly becomes much less soothing--is the ``Samson option.'' Saddam might choose to bring down the temple by being the man who killed 100,000 Israelis in a day. Which Chalabi says Saddam could try to do with Scud missiles fired from Iraq's western desert and carrying, say, VX poison gas. Also, Saddam has developed short-range (150 kilometers) missiles that could strike any target in Israel if launched from Jordan. Such missiles could be smuggled into Jordan in some of the Iraqi trucks that stream across the border.
However, Chalabi, soothing again, believes the ``Samson option'' could be forestalled by denying Saddam access to the western desert, by intense intelligence work in Jordan and by guaranteeing Jordan the oil it gets from Iraq. And--Chalabi the optimist, again--by telling the soldiers who might actually fire such missiles that they can be identified and will be punished.
Chalabi was heartened by something President Bush did (BEG ITAL)not say in the State of the Union address. Bush did not repeat his demand that Iraq again admit U.N. inspectors to search for weapons of mass destruction. Saddam could have feigned acquiescence, beginning many months of negotiations about the composition of the inspection team and the modalities of inspections.
Chalabi believes the December defection of an Iraqi deeply familiar with Saddam's weapons programs has confirmed that inspectors are no match for Saddam's concealment measures. Furthermore, Chalabi says Saddam fears losing face by accepting inspectors and, besides, he believes the inspectors would be CIA agents planning targeting.
Well. As American policy-makers assess the vulnerability of Saddam's regime, they also must evaluate others' assessments, including those of Iraqi exiles. Exiles may understandably be prone to allowing their wishes to become the fathers of their thoughts. Exiles talking to a potential patron have an incentive to minimize the difficulty of sending them home; they have an incentive to tempt a great power to become irrevocably committed through action.
And some American officials are caustic about the Iraqi opposition. Retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, special envoy for the Middle East, dismisses the Iraqi National Congress as ``silk-suited, Rolex-wearing guys in London'' who could create a fiasco akin to the 1961 Bay of Pigs operation by U.S.-supported anti-Castro exiles--a ``Bay of Goats,'' Zinni warns.
Certainly the Cuban exiles--and feckless U.S. officials--overestimated the fragility of Castro's regime, and the potential for a small invasion to ignite a popular uprising. But mistaken assessments before the Gulf War suggest that we are at least as apt to overestimate as to underestimate Iraq's power. And what Chalabi and other brave people believe should not be dismissed as wrong just because they, as we, very much want it to be true.