Playing the Iran Card

Without Iran, Clinton Still Holds a Bad Hand

But it still may be the best chance anybody's got. Sure, Algeria is a cautionary tale. For different reasons, so is Afghanistan. But if we could get past our trauma over Iran, some Iranians are already getting over their past with us. Last week the American flag flew in Iran for the first time in 19 years without catching fire. Just a month after the country's new president, Mohammad Khatami, talked with CNN's Christiane Amanpour about opening the door to cultural and sports exchanges, five U.S. wrestlers carrying the flag in Tehran were cheered. Wrestling is as big in Iran as table tennis is in China; Ping-Pong games precipitated Nixon's China card.

But the same day, Iran's spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, again called the United States "the Great Satan." Khamenei still commands fundamentalists of all ages, while president Khatami is backed by a new generation of Iranians wanting more freedom. They are united against Clinton's plan to bomb Iraq.

Before this administration does anything pointless, or something that could even make things worse, it should expand its horizon. And it should think about what it really means to hit rock bottom, and understand how we sunk there.

The days following the Gulf War were heady days. Saddam Hussein had been driven out of Kuwait. All Bush thought he needed to do was suggest Saddam be gone and, like magic, he would vanish. Last week, Bush told CNN's Bernard Shaw, "I thought that when the war ended, he could not survive." Bush had no other plan. General Norman Schwarzkopf negotiated the terms of a cease-fire agreement as if it didn't matter. Schwarzkopf was worried about coalition forces. He grounded Saddam's planes, but allowed him to continue flying helicopters. Saddam said he needed them to get to the negotiations.

The United States still wanted Saddam out of power, even though the U.S.-led coalition had never had the authority to remove him. So Bush tried to provoke a coup. On March 1, 1991, two days after Saddam yielded in the Gulf War, Bush told the Iraqi people "to put him aside" and bring Iraq "back into the family of peace-loving nations." The people Bush had in mind were members of the ruling party and the military--Arab Sunnis like Saddam. But they failed to act. Instead, many Kurds and Arab Shi'ites revolted.

Indeed, on March 1, Islamist Shi'ite clerics in the south called for insurrection. Within days, Shi'ite rebels had taken Basrah, and fighting had broken out in nearly every southern city. On March 11, the largest gathering ever of Iraqi opposition leaders took place in Beirut with Saudi financing and under Syrian guard. Three days later, Kurdish guerrillas in northern Iraq launched their own offensive. Within one week, they would liberate nearly all of Iraq's Kurdish-speaking areas. Some Kurdish couples named their newborns "Bush." But Bush had not bet on insurrectionary forces.

Everyone presumed Saddam would be overthrown. The only question was when, and who would replace him? Back then the CIA was backing a bunch of London-based exiles. Iran was backing the Shi'ites, and Syria and Iran were helping the Kurds. Though the London exiles' current leader, Ahmed Chalabi, is a moderate Shi'ite, most of the people he represents are Sunnis and ex-monarchists. Many left Iraq after its monarchy was deposed in 1958. They have never fielded any military force. Yet in March 1991 they planned to form a government-in-exile by themselves.

They never got the chance. While they squabbled, many Shi'ites and Kurds fought. The Kurds made the most gains, going as far as Kirkuk, a key oil-producing town, where Saddam began his northern counteroffensive.

On March 28, everything changed after dawn. In Kirkuk, thousands of Kurds were still in the city, as incoming artillery and tank shells shook the ground. A young girl was killed on her bicycle. "This is Saddam Hussein!" yelled one man who knew her. "Mr. Bush must know." Soon several small helicopters broke the sky. They fired machine guns, as the guerrillas returned fire with anti-aircraft guns. The shells became more accurate, and tanks closed in on the town. Kurdish guerrillas pulled out just two surface-to-air missiles. By about noon, the smaller helicopters were joined by four or five fixed-wing helicopter gunships. Glistening like angry hornets, they unloaded seemingly endless volleys of exploding rockets. Kurds were dying all around. Several multiple-rocket launchers dropped a blanket of fire on fleeing guerrillas and civilians.

Kirkuk was taken by 2 p.m., not by Republican Guards but by army special forces. It took Saddam only three more days to crush the rest of the Kurdish rebellion. By then, the Shi'ite revolt had also been snuffed out. Tens of thousands of Kurds fled into the mountains bordering Turkey and Iran. They panicked as rumors spread that Saddam was using chemical weapons, as he had against the Kurds in 1988. In fact, he didn't, but during the exodus, many "Bush" babies died of exposure. The Bush administration eventually established a safe haven in northern Iraq to protect the Kurds.

Soon the London-based exiles tried again to usurp control of the Iraqi opposition. Until 1996, the CIA gave the Iraqi National Congress $15 million in covert aid. They used part of it to establish a headquarters in northern Iraq, and they tried and failed to unite the Kurds.

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