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Profile: Retired General Anthony Zinni Gives Many Reasons Why the U.S. Should Avoid War With Iraq

Morning Edition: August 29, 2002

Iraq Debate



RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

Senior White House officials are quoted as saying they expect President Bush will seek some sign of congressional approval before conducting any military action against Iraq. Yesterday Republican Senator John Warner called for congressional hearings on the issue, and as NPR's Steve Inskeep reports, a former US military commander says it's the wrong time to go to war against Saddam Hussein.

STEVE INSKEEP reporting:

This critique comes from the former commander of all US forces in the Middle East. General Anthony Zinni served in the region for a decade, then later became one of the Bush administration's envoys to the region.

General ANTHONY ZINNI: Attacking Iraq now will cause a lot of problems. I think the debate right now that's going on is very healthy.

INSKEEP: General Zinni joined that debate during a speech last week before the Florida Economic Club. Some of his remarks were previously reported, though the speech is broadcast here for the first time. Zinni suggested that war against Iraq would distract the United States from larger problems.

Gen. ZINNI: The Middle East peace process, to my mind, has to be a higher priority. Winning the war on terrorism has to be a higher priority. The situation in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Central Asia need to be resolved. Making sure al-Qaeda can't rise again from the ashes that are destroyed; Taliban cannot come back.

INSKEEP: Zinni warned that war in Iraq could lead to civilian casualties, giving US enemies an advantage in the battle for public opinion in the Islamic world. And Zinni predicated that if the US attacks Iraq, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein would attack Israel. Zinni noted that several former generals share his concerns, including Gulf War commander Norman Schwarzkopf and former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft.

Gen. ZINNI: It might be interesting to wonder why all the generals see it the same way and all those that never fired a shot in anger are really hell bent to go to war see it a different way. That's usually the way it is with history.

INSKEEP: Anthony Zinni included Secretary of State Colin Powell in his list of skeptical former generals, though State Department officials now emphasize that Zinni was voicing his own opinions.

Among other things, General Zinni says that war would further strain relations with US allies. This has become one of the most critical points in the debate over Iraq, and it's a point where supporters of war say Zinni's view is wrong. House Majority Whip Tom DeLay announced his support for war in a speech last week. DeLay said Iraq could obtain nuclear weapons someday. He says the US must act to protect itself, even if its allies disagree.

Representative TOM DeLAY (Majority Whip): While the once great nations of Europe abdicate their responsibility, danger grows, the spread of devastating weapons accelerates and the support from terrorism state sponsors continues unabated behind the scenes.

INSKEEP: Within the Bush administration, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld acknowledges that many allies speak against war, but this week he predicted that if the US goes to war, some countries will support it.

Secretary DONALD RUMSFELD (Defense Department): Leadership in the right direction finds followers and supporters just as the leadership of the United States and the global war on terror has found some 90 nations to assist and to cooperate.

INSKEEP: As President Bush decides whether to seek a confrontation, retired General Zinni offers one more warning. He says the US could face a massive commitment after overthrowing Saddam Hussein.

Gen. ZINNI: You could inherit the country of Iraq, if you want to do it. If our economy is so great that you're willing to put billions of dollars into reforming Iraq, if you want to put soldiers that are already stretched so thin all around the world and add them into a security force there forever, you're going to have to make a good case for that.

INSKEEP: Anthony Zinni says he agrees that Saddam Hussein poses a threat. He's just not sure the Iraqi leader is worth the cost of removing. Steve Inskeep, NPR News, Washington.

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