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Analysis: President Bush's Message For Hussein's Hilitary Commanders

All Things Considered: October 8, 2002

Iraqi Generals

JACKI LYDEN, host:

The White House billed the president's address last night as a speech to ordinary Americans, but President Bush also had a specific message for Saddam Hussein's military commanders.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: An Iraqi regime faced with its own demise may attempt cruel and desperate measures. If Saddam Hussein orders such measures, his generals would be well advised to refuse those orders. If they do not refuse, they must understand that all war criminals will be pursued and punished.

LYDEN: Analysts say the president's objective goes beyond deterring Iraqi commanders from using weapons of mass destruction, that he wants to encourage Saddam Hussein's generals to switch sides or surrender when faced with overwhelming US force. But as NPR's Eric Westervelt reports, many are skeptical that Iraq's top commanders can be turned.

ERIC WESTERVELT reporting:

The US victory in the Persian Gulf War was swift and ferocious. The Iraqi army was humiliated. And some analysts believe that after 10 more years of repression and international sanctions some Iraqi military leaders are champing at the bit to turn on Saddam Hussein or quickly surrender if fighting begins anew. In 1991, thousands of Iraqi troops were eager to give up, some without even firing a shot. One group mistakenly surrendered to an Italian film crew. But Judith Yaphe, who worked as a CIA Middle East analyst for 20 years, says those were mainly low-level conscripts. The upper echelons of the Iraqi military, she says, remain deeply loyal.

Ms. JUDITH YAPHE (Former CIA Middle East Analyst): Don't underestimate their willingness to stand by Saddam. They have a capability and they have a willingness to defend, at least for a time, that which and he who created them, and that was Saddam.

WESTERVELT: It's a type of loyalty enforced by fear and terror. Intelligence officials say most Iraqi military commanders are assigned a regime correctness minder who watches their every move for signs of disloyalty. They monitor their relatives and make sure Hussein's orders are carried out.

Hussein has executed disloyal generals, Yaphe points out, and retaliated against entire families. One Iraqi general, now in exile in the US, was famously sent a video of a female relative being raped. Iraqi commanders' hands are so bloody, Yaphe says, it's wishful thinking to believe they would flip sides or disobey Hussein in wartime.

Ms. YAPHE: I don't think you're going to find Iraqis that are going to take, you know, that kind of political initiative, especially in this system so heavily terrorized, so heavily politicized that they're going to think easily that they can, you know, just turn the corner. They are as guilty or as implicated in ethnic cleansing, in the wars as he is, otherwise they wouldn't have survived, they wouldn't still be there as generals.

WESTERVELT: Experts agree that leaders of Hussein's Republican Guard units will be the toughest to influence. In the few instances during the Gulf War that the US faced what some called `elite units,' the Republican Guard fought much harder than the regular army.

General PAUL FUNK (Retired, US 3rd Armored Tank Division): I hate the fact, when people call them elite, I don't think they're elite. I think they're thugs and hoodlums. But I do think they will fight, because they have more to lose than anyone else.

WESTERVELT: Retired General Paul Funk commanded the US 3rd Armored Tank Division during the Gulf War, which saw fierce tank battles with some Republican Guard divisions. Funk says the White House threat of a war crimes trial is likely to ring hollow with Iraqi guard commanders. He says Hussein has likely told them that they're already seen as war criminals by the West, so why not fight to the last?

Gen. FUNK: I believe that those people will not turn, will not lay down their arms. They're going to try to cover their own bets. And I think it's very important that we understand that.

WESTERVELT: As recently as yesterday, some in the Bush administration still expressed hope that Iraqi military men would rise up. `Human beings are human beings,' said Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. `There have to be people there despite the fact that they've been repressed for decades,' Rumsfeld said, `who would prefer to live a different life.' Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Washington.

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