BRUSSELS – Saddam Hussein is afraid. Saddam Hussein is very afraid. Or is he?

The Iraqi state press is not exactly impressed with the emergence of a detailed concept for a military attack on Iraq, which an anonymous source leaked to the New York Times last week. Asia Times Online had detailed some of the contents of the rough draft way back in March (Bush vs Saddam: The empire strikes back).

The document has not been presented either to US Chief of Central Command, General Tommy Franks, or to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. According to the source, the leak was inevitable because the document was mediocre. This may certainly be the case – but alternatively the document performs a role the Pentagon is not exactly unhappy with: it is a perfect excuse for the Iraqis not to cooperate with the return of UN weapons inspectors.

From an Iraqi point of view, now there’s absolutely no reason for any kind of cooperation. Iraq is the leading member of Bush’s “axis of evil.” The US president has stated that he wants a “change of regime” in Iraq. Three weeks ago, the CIA got a blank check to try do dislodge Saddam by all means necessary. The original deadline – an attack next fall – was just postponed to the beginning of 2003.

Last Friday in Vienna, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan left the third round of discussions with Iraq on the return of UN weapons inspectors empty-handed. He said the UN would “remain in touch” with Iraq – but Annan himself will no longer be directly involved while the Iraqis don’t move on the crucial question of the return of the inspectors, who left the country in December 1998. The official Iraqi position remains the same, as articulated by Foreign Minister Naji Sabri. Iraq wants “a comprehensive solution, mostly including the end of the sanctions and the respect of our independence.”

As Asia Times Online certified last April inside Iraq (Iraq Diary), the totalitarian character of the UN sanctions is imposed on the Iraqi population as much as the totalitarian trappings of Saddam’s regime. But Sabri is not off the mark altogether when he accuses the US of forcing the return of the inspectors “to refresh the information they provide to American and British planes so they can strike the Iraqi people. These are the colonialist dreams of evil leaders in Washington.”

Arab public opinion does not like what they hear from Washington. For most of the press in the Gulf States, the UN Security Council is just following US orders, “trying to find weapons of mass destruction in Saddam’s bedroom,” or trying to “find an excuse to attack Iraq.”

Whatever his plans for Iraq, Bush will need support from Congress. In 1991, for Desert Storm, George Bush senior got his approval from the Senate with a narrow margin of 52 against 47. Nowadays, Democrats – the Senate majority – and even a few Republicans are not exactly keen on a replay.

The consensus in Europe is that an American invasion might be a good thing for Israel, but it may be absolute hell for American influence. Israel’s motivation is to destroy the Iraqi economy for many generations. The Iraqi opposition’s motivation is to grab raw power. The backlash for the US would be long-term hatred by all the Arab peoples. European diplomats comment that the only viable solution is “an annulment of the UN sanctions that would permit the development of a civil society in Iraq.” And in the short term, “the implementation of the [Saudi Crown Prince] Abdullah plan in Palestine.”

Arab countries approved the Saudi plan – Israel back to its pre-1967 borders in exchange for recognition by the Arab world – at the Arab League summit in Beirut last March. This was a big victory for Saddam Hussein. Sources confirm Abdullah had been trying for a long time to lift the sanctions and reach a modus vivendi with Baghdad. But for him there was always a condition: Shi’ites – 60 percent of the population – should have better representation in the Iraqi government.

In Iraq, Asia Times Online learned that Saddam was extremely suspicious of Abdullah – whom he considered a Sunni enemy. But the ever reasonable Deputy Prime Minister Minister Tariq Aziz had a margin of action to decide otherwise, so he started working with a group of Abdullah’s emissaries for a quick reinstatement of Iraq in the Arab family. It was Tariq Aziz himself who negoatiated as far back as the beginning of 2001 the definitive Iraqi acknowledgment of Kuwait’s independence. But at the time Saddam still regarded Kuwait as Iraq’s 19th province.

Even through the veil of secrecy that surrounds everything concerning the Iraqi regime, it was possible to learn in Iraq that around September 11, Iraq and Syria were trying to get closer, because both were very disturbed by the increasingly cosy relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia. That’s the reason why Saddam started to pay attention to a certain Osama bin Laden. Osama is a mortal enemy of Prince Abdullah.

Some connections can be drawn. Iraq’s ambassador in Turkey received some al-Qaeda emissaries in Ankara. A few Iraqis started mingling with Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence( ISI) operatives helping the Taliban in Afghanistan: Asia Times Online met one of these in a Panjshir valley prison in August 2001. He had been captured by Northern Alliance forces, and he described himself as “opposed to Saddam Hussein.”

Kusai – the most intractable of Saddam’s sons – also started paying attention to al-Qaeda. Saddam signed a few decrees forbidding women to work in selected fields. Extremely conservative Sunni brotherhoods started springing up everywhere in the Iraqi countryside. It’s no wonder that the secular Iraq of the 70s has disappeared: Sunni mosques are being built everywhere.

But there is absolutely no evidence that al-Qaeda was or may be directly involved in Iraq. The only concret link is the fact that Muhamad Atta – the chief pilot on September 11 – twice went on a return ticket to Prague from New York to meet the local chief of Iraqi intelligence. And as far as Saddam Hussein’s stock of weapons of mass destruction is concerned, it is primitive, and merely defensive. The excuses for an American attack are flimsy at best.

Asia Times Online also ascertained – through a member of the Republican Guard who agreed to talk in absolute secrecy – that Saddam now lives in constant double-edged fear: fear of the inevitable American attack, and fear of the plots to kill him, concocted either by disgruntled generals or by key former figures like his half-brother Bassam, former ambassador in Geneva, or the former chief of military intelligence who now lives and plots in Damascus.

But Saddam’s biggest fear remains Iran – and the Shi’ite majority in Iraq who would expect help from Tehran in case the regime starts imploding. As Saddam was propping up Syria’s regime, he still refused to renounce Kuwait. But in the end Tariq Aziz’s strategy was successful: Iraq finally recognized Kuwait at the Beirut summit – but in exchange for total solidarity of the Arab states in case of American attack. It’s open to scrutiny how this solidarity would resist extreme American economic and military pressure.

One of the strategies Saddam could use to protect his assets from American strikes is to roll his tanks into Syria with the benediction of Bashar Assad, and proclaim that he is ready to liberate Palestine: anyway, this is what an artillery of videos on Iraqi state TV rhetorically proclaim non-stop. The Iraqi move would certainly force Israel to wage war against Syria – but ultimately nothing would prevent the Israelis, and the Americans, to go from smashing Damascus to smashing Baghdad.

It’s no secret among European diplomatic circles that what the US really wants is to install a vassal regime in a crucial oil producing country like Iraq. The US wants a thug – a new Mubarak – but “our thug.” The new thug would be a vital cog in a grand geostrategic oil design. As the US is already on the ground in Central Asia and slowly encircles Russia and China, nothing would be sweeter than a Middle East linked to Central Asia as an American-influenced geostrategic area.

Arguably none of Washington’s hawks has a clue on what to do with Iraq after Saddam. It’s absolutely unlikely that a liberal regime would spring up in Baghdad. Echoes from the Kurdish diaspora in London and Paris reveal that the Kurds are deeply divided over their future. Those who live in the autonomous area in the north are not willing to abandon their comfortable semi-independent status. And the Iraqi opposition in exile is little more than a bunch of thugs.

It’s very important to point out that since the “Mother of All Battles” – as the Gulf War is known in Iraq – Saddam was absolutely incapable of containing the Kurd secession in the north. These Kurds speak an Iranian language, they were part of the Ottoman Empire until 1918, and since then have no particular reason to feel they belong to Iraq. They were glued to Iraq by the British – for strictly oil-related reasons. They are very close to their blood brothers in Turkey and also in Iran.

Saddam did his homework. He was interested only in the oil-rich part of Kurdistan, prone to a process of “Arabization.” The rest of the province was tribal territory – and off limits to Iraq’s army. Since 1991 an autonomous Kurdistan is under a shadow American protection: its leader, Masoud Barzani, is under de facto Turkish protection.

The CIA may not know that some of the key Iraqi ayatollahs are in favor of democracy in Iraq, and many are admittedly nostalgic for King Faisal and the Hashemite dynasty. Saddam himself has been courting the ayatollahs for years. Most of all, the ayatollahs really fear Saddam’s sons, the ruthless Udai and the extremely cruel Kusai.

Whatever the outcome of the Empire striking back, European diplomats agree that “the integrity of Iraq is the most important consideration of all. It’s vital for Turkey, Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia, all the important regional players”, as a Danish diplomat (Denmark currently holds the EU presidency) put it. The common nightmare is a post-Saddam Hussein fragmentation. Everybody in Europe and the Arab world fears that if Israel finally decides to go back to its pre-1967 borders, the US will eventually get a free hand from all those “solid” Arab leaders in Beirut to do whatever they want with Iraq. No wonder the anonymous Republican Guardsman in Baghdad revealed that Saddam is suffering one long, endless, sleepless night.

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