Jewish World Review April 10, 2003 / 8 Nisan, 5763

David Ignatius

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Tipping Points | LONDON Like the giant statue of Saddam Hussein that slowly tumbled to the ground in central Baghdad yesterday, the war in Iraq has been determined by a series of tipping points that mean the collapse of the regime.

Western intelligence officials outlined the key developments in interviews here yesterday, even as Iraqis in Baghdad and Basra, finally feeling free of Saddam Hussein's 25-year reign, were cheering U.S. and British troops as liberators. Among the crucial factors the intelligence officials cited in explaining the remarkable 21-day path to the regime's seeming demise:

  • The internal fragility and paranoia of Hussein's inner circle. The intelligence officials said that in the days before the war, the Iraqi leader had held his two sons, Uday and Qusay, as virtual prisoners because of fear they might take action against him.

    Hussein's mental condition seemed to worsen after U.S. planes tried to kill him March 20 in a bunker outside Baghdad. One official said that intelligence assets reported that afterward, the steely Iraqi was "behaving oddly" and "showing psychological instability." After the March 20 surprise attack on the leadership, the officials said, it was never clear who was in charge of Iraqi military decisions.

    The intelligence officials remain unsure whether Hussein survived Monday's bombing raid on a leadership hideout in Baghdad. U.S. officials hope he was killed by the attack, but British officials are said to have received reports that Hussein left the complex shortly before the bombs struck and may still be alive and in hiding.

  • The gradual loosening of the regime's grip of fear on the Iraqi population. It was only when Iraqis were convinced that Hussein's power had been broken that they dared voice their opposition. This process of breaking the psychological chains that bound Iraq to its charismatic leader is still going on in some towns, the officials said. But the bonds have been shattered in Iraq's two biggest cities.

    In Basra, the tipping point was the death of Ali Hassan Majeed, the ruthless military commander of southern Iraq. British agents in Basra reported last weekend that Majeed was meeting with local Baath Party leaders and intelligence officers in a government building in central Basra. The building was bombed and destroyed, and word quickly spread that the hated Majeed was dead.

    "The bombing produced a panic among security and Baath Party officials, and many began to desert," explained one official. Intelligence agents on the ground monitored the flight of the local leadership, and British commanders -- realizing that the regime's authority was suddenly crumbling -- decided to move up their assault on Basra.

    In Baghdad, the psychological breakthrough came this week when U.S. armored columns suddenly burst into the center of the city. Iraqi defenses quickly collapsed. As Iraqis learned yesterday that Baghdad was falling, a spontaneous revolt exploded in Amarah, the intelligence officials said.

  • The delayed but ultimately devastating assault on the Republican Guard forces protecting Baghdad. The United States had waited several days before heavily bombing these elite units, hoping that some of them might change sides.

    "There was some expectation that division-size units might decide to come over en masse," an intelligence official said, adding that this proved to be "wishful thinking." Some Republican Guard commanders had indicated to coalition sources that they were ready to switch, the official said, but "they either changed their minds or it was too difficult to carry out."

  • The unwillingness of most Iraqi troops to die for the regime. The intelligence officials cited an ironic moment this week in the final defense of Baghdad, when Republican Guard officers ordered some of an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 volunteers from other Arab nations to the front lines to face the American assault.

    "When the volunteers turned around to look for the Republican Guard, they had disappeared -- leaving non-Iraqis to defend the regime," an intelligence official said. He said this illustrated the irony of "the Arab world supporting Saddam while his own people were running away and desperate to get rid of him." Resistance continues in some towns, an official said, partly because Fedayeen and Baath militia fighters "haven't been told to do anything else" and fear that if they stop fighting, "they'll be shot by their superiors." The regime stronghold of Tikrit also remains to be conquered. But the intelligence officials said they don't see any organized threat left to coalition forces.

The intelligence officials offered a tantalizing coda for conspiracy-mongers. They said the "crude forgery" received by U.N. weapons inspectors suggesting the Iraqis were trying to buy uranium from Niger as part of their nuclear program was originally put in intelligence channels by France. The officials wouldn't speculate on French motives.

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