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Sons' Deaths a Turning Point in Campaign

U.S. assault is likely to weaken motivation and perhaps coordination of Iraqi resistance as well as change the subject in Washington.

July 23, 2003|Robin Wright | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The deaths of Saddam Hussein's powerful sons Tuesday is a badly needed boost for the Bush administration, a major strategic gain for U.S. forces battling Iraqi resistance and a boon for the fragile new governing council in Iraq.

The raid in the northern city of Mosul, perhaps the most dramatic event in Iraq since the toppling of Hussein's statue in downtown Baghdad more than three months ago, signals a psychological turning point, according to U.S. officials and experts on Iraq, because the United States has proved that it can achieve key postwar goals.

The killing of Uday and Qusai Hussein in a six-hour siege might also be more important in the long term than capturing or killing the aging former Iraqi leader.

"As long as his sons lived, there was always the danger that the dynasty would try to make a comeback. Symbolically, it's very, very important to have eliminated the sons," said Henri J. Barkey, an expert on Iraq and a former member of the State Department's policy planning staff.

Three years ago, Hussein anointed as his political heir his second son, Qusai, who ran military and intelligence units for his father, according to Amatzia Baram, an expert on Iraq and a fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington.

In a brief written statement, the White House said Hussein's two sons would "no longer cast a shadow of hate on Iraq."

But officials and analysts differed over the role the brothers might have played in planning or coordinating attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq. Some said the brothers were spending too much time hiding to be involved, while others said the two remained active.

The attack is "clearly important politically. But it could be operationally too," deputy national security advisor Stephen Hadley told reporters.

There is little evidence of centralized command in the daily guerrilla attacks on U.S. forces, many of which have occurred in the so-called Sunni triangle north of Baghdad.

Hadley said it is unlikely but not inconceivable that Hussein's sons played a coordinating role.

But Judith Yaphe, a former CIA analyst now at the National Defense University in Washington, said, "This is the big break the U.S. needed.

"It doesn't stop all the violence against us, but this could cut it significantly on the widely held assumption that Uday and Qusai were encouraging or running some of the groups that have been attacking us."

Even though the deaths of the second- and third-most-wanted figures from Hussein's regime are unlikely to change the desire of many Iraqis for the United States to leave as soon as possible, it will help Iraqis focus on the future.

"This may not make Iraqis any fonder of us, but it does allow them to focus on progress in reconstructing the country politically and physically," Yaphe said.

The 22 men and three women on the new Iraqi governing council, which was established this month, were chosen to broadly represent Iraq's major ethnic and religious communities as the country struggles to craft a post-Hussein era.

They will help form policy as Iraq embarks on a process that is expected to establish an interim administration, a constitutional convention, elections and a new government.

In Washington for consultations, L. Paul Bremer III, the chief U.S. administrator for Iraq, said the fact that Baghdad's night sky was lighted by celebratory gunfire demonstrated that Iraqis were happy to be rid of an "odious regime."

Bremer said the successful strike was the culmination of growing cooperation between Iraqis and U.S. forces, which he expects to increase further.

"It's quite possible that what we'll find is more people who will be willing to come forward," he said.

He also predicted that "it won't be long until Hussein is also captured or killed."

The removal of Hussein's sons is welcome news at the White House.

Coming as the administration faces mounting questions over intelligence discrepancies and the failure to find any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the operation may shift the focus in Washington as well.

The White House has been struggling to take back political ground lost during the debate about President Bush's claim in his State of the Union address that the Iraqi regime had tried to acquire uranium from Africa to reconstitute a nuclear weapons program.

"It sucks up all the air and reminds us once again of the great victory that we had over there," Yaphe said.

Even though Hussein and Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden remain at large, the United States no longer appears so stymied by elusive enemies.

Republicans were euphoric about the military operation.

"Iraqis can celebrate the removal of yet another remnant of the Baathist regime that brutalized their long-suffering country. The frequent, dreadful discovery of mass graves containing the victims of Saddam and his family is a reminder of the justness of our cause that removed a horrible tyranny," said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz).

But Democrats cautioned that the United States still had a long way to go.

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