How to Unseat Saddam

This essay is a condensed version of an essay that appears in the Winter 2001/2002 issue of The National Interest(

With respect to what is sometimes characterized as taking out Saddam, I never saw a plan that was going to take him out.
— Secretary of State Colin Powell

Before September 11, U.S. policymakers would have been hard-pressed to justify significant military action against Iraq without a major provocation. The events of September 11 and the subsequent anthrax incidents, however, have highlighted the dangers of “business as usual” in an age of sophisticated terrorism and weapons proliferation, and the potentially high costs of ignoring the likes of Saddam Hussein; that is true whether or not Iraq was associated with these events. The risks of perpetuating a faltering containment policy, and the imperative of regime change in Iraq have never been clearer.

The success of regime change in Iraq will hinge largely on the ability of the United States to harness the potential inherent in four principal policy levers that it holds, but has hitherto failed to effectively employ in concert: 1) military action; 2) psychological operations and propaganda; 3) economic pressure; and 4) support for the opposition. None of these alone can reliably overthrow the regime of Saddam Hussein; taken together, however, synergy among them could create the necessary conditions for a coup or popular uprising that could sweep the Ba’ath from power. Let us take these four elements one by one.

I. Military Action

The main obstacle to overthrowing the Ba’athi regime is not a lack of desire among Iraqis to get rid of it, but the efficacy of the regime’s security organs and the extraordinary measures taken by Saddam Hussein to ensure his own survival. These security organs include the Presidential bodyguard, the Special Security Organization (SSO), the Special Republican Guard (SRG, a division-sized force located mainly in and around Baghdad), Saddam’s Commandos, and the three Republican Guard (RG) armored divisions ringing Baghdad.

Nearly every coup attempt originating inside or outside the country in the past three decades has been compromised beforehand or nipped in the bud. Likewise, the regime succeeded in putting down the 1991 uprising following Operation Desert Storm— the most serious challenge to Ba’athi rule to date — and it has put down several minor outbreaks of violence since then (in Ramadi in May–June 1995 and in Basra in March 1999). The bottom line is that as long as the internal security apparatus remains loyal, intact and alert, coup attempts and uprisings are likely to fail. Consequently, U.S. air strikes that land damaging blows to these organizations and thereby disrupt their functioning are a sine qua non for a successful coup or uprising. Recognition of this fact has thus far been missing from U.S. policy.

An air campaign that visits grievous injury upon these security organizations, and that immobilizes them for at least several days, could compromise the survival of the regime. By forcing the units that form the main pillar of Saddam’s rule to disperse and lay low, a U.S. air campaign could create a window of opportunity for a successful coup or uprising (though each would require different targeting strategies). This concept is not founded on blind faith in the promise of airpower, for it does not require airpower to do anything that it has not already done in previous wars (e.g., force static ground forces to disperse, and interdict them when they move).

In going after the regime’s security apparatus, the United States should strike only essential targets, dealing concentrated blows against the Special Republican Guard, Special Security Organization and the Republican Guard. It should avoid the temptation of using the opportunity to hit other target sets (e.g., units of the regular military or WMD-related facilities) that could dilute the impact of its effort. Because the United States pays a political price every time it uses force against Baghdad, the United States must not squander prestige, political capital, and a rare opportunity to achieve key objectives by diffusing its efforts.

There are, of course, major obstacles to pulling off a successful coup or uprising. In either case, success will require extensive planning. The few individuals both willing and able to undertake a coup need to be identified, a candidate from among them recruited and his reliability assessed before such an operation begins, in order to avoid falling victim to Trojan horse-type schemes engineered in Baghdad. Here, members of the Iraqi opposition might help identify potential coup-makers, though their potential contribution must be weighed against the risk of compromising the effort by involving oppositionists who might be incapable of keeping secrets or, worse, who are working for Saddam.

There are also practical obstacles to a successful coup. Assuming that a coup plotter could attract support from fellow officers for his effort without being detected (admittedly, a tall order), the ability of coalition airpower to support such an effort could be limited by various factors. It could prove difficult, for example, to distinguish friendly from hostile units involved in close-in fighting during a coup (though “friendlies” could solve this problem by placing aerial identification panels on their vehicles). Washington has also to consider the possibility that should Saddam learn of such U.S. efforts, he might organize a “coup” against himself in order to cause the United States to call off its air campaign, re-emerging once U.S. forces had returned home. He has, in the past, spoken obliquely of such a ploy. Some skeptics may worry, too, that by supporting potential coup-makers, the United States will be tainting them as American stooges and thus doom them to failure. Such risks could be mitigated if the United States were initially to adopt a positive, yet somewhat detached stance toward a new government, allowing the latter to define the parameters of a new relationship with Washington.

Clearly, organizing a successful coup will be difficult. Sparking an uprising would not be easy either, but it is not unprecedented. The 1991 uprising was a direct consequence of Iraq’s defeat in Operation Desert Storm. Because it was unexpected and spontaneous in its origins, it has been passed off as a one time event— a missed opportunity never again to be repeated. This need not, however, be the case. Several factors contributed to the 1991 uprising:

  • pent-up hatred caused by decades of domestic repression, economic hardship (due to the Iran-Iraq War), and the regime’s ruinous military adventures;
  • the lopsided coalition victory in Desert Storm, which undermined Saddam’s image of invincibility and caused many Iraqis to momentarily lose their fear of the regime;
  • the disintegration of Iraq’s army, which freed large numbers of retreating soldiers — many still armed— from the strictures of military discipline and the watchful eyes of the security services, enabling them to serve as a catalyst for the uprising;
  • the defeat in Desert Storm, which paralyzed the regime’s supporters with fear, while the disarray and confusion caused by the air campaign limited the ability of the regime’s internal security apparatus to follow and respond to events;
  • the belief that the United States would provide military support to an uprising, which encouraged and emboldened the rebels.

While it may not be possible to replicate all these conditions today, the United States could recreate some of them. A concerted air campaign against the main pillars of the regime could undermine Saddam’s image of invincibility, shake the confidence of his supporters, cause disarray in the ranks of the security services, and embolden its enemies to seize the day. Much would depend on the perception in Iraq that the United States is serious about removing the Ba’athi regime. In light of its mixed track record, producing the necessary perception will not be easy, though an air campaign that focuses on regime targets could rapidly alter popular Iraqi estimations of American resolve. The opposition could play a role in exploiting such altered perceptions and expectations; in accordance with prior plans, oppositionists in southern Iraq (including members of the external opposition inserted into Iraq beforehand to organize such efforts) could engage in acts of sabotage and open rebellion to help spark a wider uprising during a U.S. air campaign. Likewise, oppositionists outside of Iraq might succeed in convincing commanders of units they are in contact with (either regular military or rg formations) to join in an uprising; the participation of ground units in such an undertaking would greatly enhance the odds of success.

A future attempt to foment a coup or uprising would also benefit from the fact that the United States would be dedicating all available assets toward achieving this goal— whereas past efforts to target Iraq’s leadership were unfocused, and not supported by other policy instruments. In Operation Desert Storm, the United States devoted only 260 out of nearly 36,250 strike sorties against “leadership” targets. (Even so, it reportedly came close to killing Saddam Hussein once or twice). American planners at the time, moreover, had only a vague understanding of how the regime’s internal security apparatus worked. We have a much better picture today. Finally, these 260 strikes were not carried out in accordance with a detailed concept of how to bring about either a coup or an uprising, and there was no supporting psychological operations (psyops) effort to speak of. Even so, the United States succeeded in fomenting an uprising that might have succeeded in overthrowing the regime had not the United States withheld crucial support for the rebels. Presumably, Washington would not make that same mistake again.

In considering the relative advantages of a coup versus an uprising, policymakers face a conundrum. While a coup offers the possibility of a relatively swift, smooth transition, limited bloodletting, few if any adverse consequences for regional stability, and the possibility of regime change without the use of WMD, it is very hard to do. On the other hand, while an uprising is more “doable” and offers the possibility of fundamental political change in Iraq, it carries several major liabilities, including the possibility of a messy denouement that leads to chaos, massive bloodletting, or the use of chemical or biological weapons against the rebels and America’s allies in the region. The risks associated with these outcomes, however, are still less daunting than those associated with the survival of the present regime: an aggressive, revanchist leadership armed with biological and nuclear weapons.

II. Psyops and Propaganda Activities

Psyops and propaganda activities that aim to diminish Saddam in the eyes of his supporters, exacerbate existing strains between his inner circle and the military, stir up popular discontent, and embolden opponents of the regime are a crucial component of any policy that seeks regime change in Baghdad. Such efforts could keep Saddam on the defensive and create an atmosphere of crisis and tension, forcing the regime to divert assets to deal with internal security, and leaving fewer resources available for clandestine technology procurement or trouble-making elsewhere. Such efforts could transform the psychological environment in the country, creating an atmosphere in which a coup or uprising might occur.

Saddam understands this well. He devotes enormous energy to efforts that make him appear larger than life and invest him with an aura of invincibility. This explains the huge posters and murals of Saddam found everywhere in Iraq. The importance Saddam attaches to the psychological dimension can be gauged from a speech he delivered to senior Ba’ath officials from Basra in June 1999 in which he exhorted them to “strive to defeat the enemy’s plans” and to “stand firm in the face of the influence of hostile media and information”, which has an “influence bigger than that of bombs.” Saddam realizes that psychological domination of his subjects is the key to their physical subjugation, and that losing the propaganda and psychological warfare battle could threaten his regime.

For this reason, the United States should support opposition radio and television propaganda efforts that seek to diminish Saddam through ridicule, and by planting doubts and raising questions about the stability of his rule and the long-term prospects of his regime. Such propaganda — especially on the eve of a crisis or in tandem with U.S. military action against Saddam’s internal security organizations — could help undermine his carefully cultivated image of omnipotence and erode the climate of extreme fear that paralyzes his opponents. It could help create— at least briefly— the necessary conditions for a coup or an uprising.

Relations between Saddam and the military have never been warm. Saddam distrusts the military and has consolidated his control over them by fear. Moreover, the army quietly resents his interference in military affairs, and many officers are bitter at the ruinous impact that his rule has had on the country and its armed forces. American propaganda should play on this distrust and resentment, emphasizing the risks incurred by the armed forces as a result of continued Ba’athi rule. Such propaganda, along with the adoption of more aggressive rules of engagement for coalition aircraft patrolling the no-fly zones (e.g., allowing them to strike Iraqi ground forces, especially RG units), might encourage members of the armed forces to turn on the regime if given the opportunity to do so.

Finally, Washington needs to rebuild its credibility in the eyes of the Iraqi people. In particular, it needs to convince them that it is serious about removing the Ba’athi regime. Average Iraqis are unlikely to join another uprising if they believe that the United States will once again abandon them in midstream. The way to do this is by speaking out against human rights violations by Baghdad, supporting the opposition (the INC as well as other groups), and most importantly, by using massive force against regime targets. The bombing of organizations responsible for repressing the Iraqi people and ensuring the survival of the regime would be the most effective way to convince Iraqis that the United States is serious about ridding Iraq of the regime of Saddam Hussein.

III. Intensified Economic Pressure

Sanctions are a crucial component of containment: they prevent Iraq from rebuilding its conventional military capabilities and recouping much of the political and economic clout it enjoyed before the August 1990 invasion of Kuwait. Nevertheless, Baghdad has been able to generate a stream of unsupervised income through illicit oil sales to Syria, Turkey, Jordan, and Iran, and by manipulating the “oil for food” program. The amount earned through smuggling amounts to $1—-2 billion a year (depending on oil prices)— sums that Saddam uses to assure the loyalty of his largely Sunni Arab power base and to insulate them from the effects of sanctions. Intensified efforts to reduce the flow of unsupervised oil income in order to reduce the amount of money Saddam can disburse to his power base might make some of them more receptive to regime change.

IV. Support for the Opposition

Support for opponents of the regime is one of the most tangible expressions of America’s commitment to regime change in Baghdad. Such support — including tangible assistance for opposition political and military activities — could lay to rest the widespread perception in parts of the Arab world that the United States really wants Saddam to remain in power.

The external opposition also has a potentially important role to play in achieving regime change. As noted above, they could identify and vet potential coup makers, or army officers who might commit their units in support of an uprising. Moreover, oppositionists with paramilitary training might be inserted into the country by the United States to catalyze and coordinate an uprising with the help of U.S. advisors outside of Iraq, with whom they would be in radio contact. (The lack of an ability to communicate and coordinate between different regions and cities was a key weakness of the 1991 uprising.) They could videotape images of rebellion, to be beamed around the world by satellite television in order to mobilize international support for a nascent uprising. Under certain circumstances, opposition military personnel could also be used to direct U.S. air strikes against regime forces, and perhaps to coordinate the airdrop of light arms to rebels.

Ensuring an Acceptable Outcome

How can Washington be sure that a coup or an uprising will bring to power a more acceptable government in Baghdad? It can’t. While it can shape the environment and help create the circumstances that might lead to a coup or an uprising, Washington will have but modest influence over the potentially messy, unpredictable, and violent process of regime change. Moreover, as suggested above, even under the best of conditions, a coup attempt or an uprising could prompt Baghdad to use chemical or biological weapons against its domestic enemies and those neighboring states associated with the United States. As a result, coalition airpower must be ready to conduct secondary strikes on nonconventional weapons stocks and associated delivery systems should they be deployed in preparation for use. This will require timely and accurate intelligence, and the ability to exploit it in real time. This is a very demanding requirement.

Although Washington might not be able to decisively influence the process of regime change once started, it would have some influence over a new government, which it could use to bring Baghdad to accept relevant UN resolutions related to disarmament, Kuwait’s borders, terrorism, and human rights. Progress toward compliance on these issues should remain a precondition for an end to sanctions. The United States should also underscore its readiness to build a new relationship with a post-Saddam Iraq, to include very generous assistance with debt relief and reconstruction.

The approach outlined here involved daunting risks and challenges. But, the risks of further delaying a serious effort at regime change are even greater, particularly because the passage of time increases the possibility that Baghdad might acquire more advanced biological arms or nuclear weapons. Therefore, the Bush Administration should focus now on forging a serious, long-term strategy for regime change in Iraq, despite the formidable risks and challenges involved. For if ridding Iraq of the regime of Saddam Hussein will be difficult, experience has shown that living with it will be even more so.