US expert questions benefit to Israel of Saddam downfall

The Jerusalem Post

March 13, 2003

The downfall of Saddam Hussein and his Ba'ath regime in the event of a successful US-led assault against Iraq might not be beneficial to Israel, according to leading American terrorism expert Prof. Leonard Weinberg, from the University of Nevada.

Iraq's bloodthirsty history does not bode well for the future of a stable democratic form of government, Weinberg said, nor does the prospect of Iran's Islamic Republic having more influence in the region in a post-Saddam era.

"In the long run, the consequences of a defeat of the Ba'athist dictatorship could lead to all sorts of possibilities, including that of enhanced power for the Iranian republic," said Weinberg, who is spending a semester as a visiting professor at the Political Science Department and National Security Studies Center at the University of Haifa.

"In this respect, the ousting of Saddam might not be a great plus for Israel, which would undoubtedly have a strategic interest in limiting Shi'ite Muslim influence along the southern shore of the Persian Gulf.

"A great deal will depend on the duration of US or some form of UN-sponsored occupation of Iraq, the composition of the new Iraqi republic and its relations with America and neighboring countries."
Weinberg noted that Saddam had in the past threatened to "burn half of Israel" and launched Scud missiles at the country during the 1991 Gulf War.

"The ruling powers in Iran, however Ayatollah Khomeini and his cohorts probably take the destruction of Israel far more seriously than Saddam," he said.

"Khomeini and former President Ali Akbar Rafsanjani keep referring to Israel as the cancer of the Middle East that has to be removed. And Iran, apparently, is farther along in developing nuclear weapons than Iraq."

Weinberg, a member of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency of the Department of Defense, said there are those in the administration of President George W. Bush who believe that US occupation of a post-Saddam Iraq would be similar to that of Japan and West Germany after WWII.

"My feeling, however, is that it may be more like the Philippines which, after independence in 1946-47, has oscillated between democratic rule and dictatorship and has been plagued by armed insurrections first by the communists and more recently by militant Muslim groups," he said.

"It will also depend on whether Iraq stays together as a coherent country and undergoes a democratic reformation, but I'm skeptical about this given its fragmented character, ethnic divides, and all the murder and mayhem in its history prior to Saddam and subsequently."

In the short-term, Weinberg believes the ousting of Saddam and the disarming of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction would be good for Israel; it is unlikely the Israel will be attacked as it was in 1991.

"If there is a threat to Israel, it comes from [Palestinian] suicide bombers and acts of terror more so than from Iraqi missiles or even from Hizbullah in Lebanon," said Weinberg, who was in his office at the University of Haifa during last Wednesday's bus bombing on the Carmel.

Noting that the US wants to avoid the realization of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's stated promise to respond if attacked by Iraq, Weinberg said, "I believe that the US is doing all it possibly can, including sending special forces into western Iraq to ensure that no missiles are fired this way. Floating off in the eastern Mediterranean are two US aircraft carrier battle groups with enough firepower to flatten Iraq twice over, if necessary.

"There could be an upsurge in attempts by Palestinians to carry out terror attacks against Israel, but I know that the security forces here are taking every possible precaution to prevent such operations.

"On the northern front, I don't think Hizbullah would carry out any serious attacks because of Syrian restraint and because the severe response that Israel would undoubtedly unleash would harm its standing in the eyes of the Lebanese and the Shi'ite community in particular."

If anything, Weinberg maintained that the US might have more to be concerned about in terms of terror attacks by Islamic militants than Israel.