Inside the Secret Campaign to Topple Saddam

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A large statue of Saddam Hussein looms over workers at a sculptor?s studio in Baghdad

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To bolster its position in the south, the Administration is trying to reach out to Tehran through intermediaries. "We've asked our friends in Britain and Germany and Canada to help," says a U.S. official. American sources say political turmoil has made it difficult to tell whether hard-liners in Tehran can stomach siding with the U.S. A senior Iranian official tells Time that his government signaled that it wants to cooperate by allowing al-Hakim's brother to attend a meeting of opposition groups in Washington on Aug. 9. "The sending of Hakim was hugely important to us," says this source. On the other hand, says another official, Tehran was burned by the Bush Administration's reaction to Iran's discreet help in the war against the Taliban. "In Afghanistan," says this official, "the U.S. proved to be unreliable, because Iranian cooperation was rewarded with 'the axis of evil.'"

While making discreet diplomatic overtures to Iran, the U.S. is more openly safeguarding its relations with other nations that have a stake in Iraq's future. On the margins of the nato summit in Prague last week, Bush met with Turkey's President Ahmet Necdet Sezer to confirm that the U.S. did not want to see Iraq's borders changed. The Turkish government is worried that Iraqi Kurds will be so overjoyed if Saddam is defeated that their mood will infect the Kurds in Turkey, rekindling demands for autonomy from Ankara. As sweeteners, Bush reaffirmed American backing for Turkey's candidacy for membership in the European Union and promised support for Turkey's mess of an economy. Then he was off to Russia, where he reassured President Vladimir Putin that the Americans have not forgotten that Iraq owes Russia $8 billion—and would not forget that Russian companies have signed potentially lucrative contracts to develop Iraq's oil fields when U.N. sanctions are removed.

It all amounts to a steady, relentless encirclement designed to convince Saddam—and his supporters inside Iraq—that forces opposed to him are closing in. But Saddam has not caved yet. Indeed, knowledgeable observers say that so far the pressure has just led Saddam to step up his efforts to contain unrest. "They know people are trying to make contacts outside," says the former U.S. government official. "The regime is being extremely vigilant." A senior British official concurs that Saddam's security apparatus remains impressive. "We really don't know how serious the (internal) opposition is," he says, "because if we knew, Saddam would know. And it wouldn't last very long." Last month, Saddam ordered the families of diplomats abroad to return to Iraq, implying that he intends to hold those family members hostage. In both London and Washington, officials insist that it is unlikely that anyone very senior within the Iraqi power structure has made contact with the outside. "Nobody's going to bet their life yet that America is ready to roll," says the former government official. "You don't want to get yourself killed two months before the U.S. liberates the country. That's not smart." But allied officials are hoping that if they make the right moves now, the war before the war will be the only one they will have to fight.

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