The Saudi Push for an Iraq Coup

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SADDAM AND SON QUSAY: A Saudi plan hopes to isolate the Iraqi leader and his inner circle

Convinced that President Bush is serious about invading Iraq, Arab leaders hope to avoid war by orchestrating a coup in Baghdad. Well-placed sources have told TIME that Saudi Arabia is vigorously pursuing a concrete plan to encourage Iraqi generals to overthrow Saddam and his clique. Western and Arab diplomats say the Saudi proposal requires a UN Security Council resolution declaring amnesty for the vast majority of Iraqi officials if they orchestrate a transition of power in Baghdad. Such an amnesty would extend to all but 100 to 120 of the most senior Baath Party officials, including Saddam, his sons, close relatives and others who have long formed part of the ruling circle. It would be offered immediately prior to the outbreak of war as a signal to Saddam's generals that the time had arrived to save their own skins with a U.N.-guaranteed amnesty. And, the Saudis believe, it could well bring the traditionally coup-proof dictator tumbling down.

"If there is amnesty for the rest of the government, Saddam will be checkmated," says one diplomat with knowledge of the initiative. To satisfy international demands for Iraq's disarmament, the proposed amnesty would be made conditional on full and active cooperation in implementing UN resolutions on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

Although the Saudi proposal leaves open the possibility that Saddam could accept exile, Arab diplomats doubt this is a realistic scenario. Instead, they believe that Iraq's Republican Guards, the best-equipped and most loyal of Saddam's troops, will eventually switch allegiances and do him in.

Western and Arab diplomats say that Saudi Arabia is actively canvassing support for the initiative among regional players and Security Council members. This week, President Hosni Mubarak and Turkish Prime Minister Abdullah Gul flew into Riyadh to discuss the plan with Saudi Arabia's de facto ruler, Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. Without confirming the details of the initiative, Abdullah told reporters that he believed war would be avoided. Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al Faisal also refused to comment on the initiative, saying only that Arab states want a final opportunity to seek a diplomatic solution to the crisis before the first shot was fired. "The concept is if you have a decision by the UN to go to war, give a chance for diplomacy to work before you go to war," Prince Saud told TIME.

The initiative marks a major turnabout for the Saudis. While the official position is still against regime change in Baghdad, the new initiative amounts to a knife in Saddam's back. And what finally pushed the notoriously cautious Saudis into action is the recognition that with tens of thousands of addition American troops headed for the Gulf, the Bush Administration really is ready to go to war.

The concern that has spurred the Saudis to move against Saddam is the same one that led them to tolerate his continued rule even after he invaded Kuwait — stability. Riyadh fears that war in Iraq could lead to chaos, civil war among ethnic factions and military incursions by neighbors like Turkey and Iran. They see a coup as offering a better chance of maintaining order and preserving state institutions necessary for providing public services such as security, health care, electricity and water. "They are trying to stage manage the removal of Saddam," says a Western diplomat. "The level of Arab anxiety about the war is sky high."

The Saudi initiative envisions a reformed Iraqi regime including some faces from among the exile community but composed mainly of the remnants of the outgoing system. "What does 'a change of regime' mean," says an Arab diplomat. "Getting rid of the Baath Party, the Revolutionary Guards, the governors and the police forces? Or is it Saddam Hussein? If it is Saddam Hussein, then the best way to deal with the problem is for Saddam to be targeted with his clique, but leave the administration as it is and divide him from his backup. If the Security Council tells the Iraqis to stay in their positions, that nobody is against the Iraqi people, that divides him from his support."

Arab leaders, say diplomats, are also motivated by a fear that the U.S. may lack the stomach for nation-building in a turbulent post-Saddam Iraq. Arab leaders have no faith in the exiled Iraqi opposition, and fear that the horse-trading necessary to build a new regime from scratch would create a system too fragile to survive. "If things go wrong, the troops will get back on their ships and leave," says an Arab diplomat. "We in the region will be left with the consequences. It will be a never-ending story."

But Arab diplomats are expecting resistance from the Bush Administration, which could have reason to fear that the Saudi initiative is little more than an Arab tactic to buy Saddam more time. Some Western diplomats in the region, however, believe the initiative may dovetail with U.S. thinking. "Politically, there would be nothing better for President Bush than to remove Saddam and disarm Iraq without firing a shot," says a Western diplomat. "All along, Washington's hope has been that as pressure gets high enough, the people around Saddam will take matters into their own hands."

Despite Saddam's success in averting a number of previous coup attempts, proponents of the Saudi plan believe things will be different when the signal is sent to Iraqi generals that the time to act is truly now or never. "What makes them collect around him?" asks an Arab diplomat. "They feel that their fate is tied with his. You'd be surprised how quickly Iraqi loyalties can change." The same holds true, it seems, for the fidelities of Saddam's fellow Arab leaders.