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Protesters plagued President George W. Bush on his recent trip to Seoul, furious that he named North Korea as part of the "axis of evil." But his journey may prove to be a picnic compared with Vice-President Dick Cheney's planned tour of the Mideast come March. Cheney's job will be to pave the way for a probable military campaign to oust the most threatening leader of the "axis" countries: Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein. Even before Cheney boards his plane, the outcry is growing. It's unacceptable for an outside power to "bomb the hell" out of an Arab country and install a new regime, declares one influential Egyptian.
Cheney's task is to overcome such opposition and win cooperation--grudging, if necessary--as he visits Egypt, Israel, Jordan, the Persian Gulf states, and Turkey. One issue he will tackle is the threat Saddam poses to other Gulf states, even after 10 years of sanctions against Iraq. Cheney will argue that unless the U.S. tames Saddam and ends all possibility of an Iraqi nuclear-arms program, all neighboring countries are at risk. Iraq's plans "to dominate the Arabian Peninsula and perhaps beyond are not in the interest of any nation in the region," says a top Administration official. "They all know it."
Cheney must also allay fears that the end of Saddam's reign could lead to a civil war or the breakup of Iraq into separate states dominated by Kurds, Shiites, and Sunnis. "We know from experience--Lebanon, Somalia--that the choice is not always between good and bad but between bad and worse. It will be much worse if there is civil war," says Abdel Moneim Said, director of Cairo's Al-Ahram Center for Political & Strategic Studies. The U.S. may have to promise a long-term economic and military commitment to these skittish leaders to get them on board.
To calm fears that the U.S. is being too hasty, Cheney is expected to offer to try methods short of military intervention. Indeed, the Bush team may make one last bid to get U.N. weapons inspectors into Iraq. But U.S. officials don't expect Saddam ever to comply fully with U.N. demands that he stop developing weapons of mass destruction. "If he doesn't change, we will attack," insists the Administration official.
Although no firm decisions have been made on when or how to unseat Saddam, the seeming inevitability of war is already affecting the region. Baghdad would like to see the Middle East get so hot that the U.S. dare not inflame the region further by targeting Iraq. And although he is hitting the Palestinians hard, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is resisting demands from within his coalition to destroy the Palestinian National Authority. "Sharon does not want the situation to get out of hand, as this could have a detrimental effect on any American action in the region," says a senior Israeli official.
Will Cheney's mission succeed? Turkey does not want a war, but as a U.S. ally it will probably cooperate in the end. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and other Arab nations are expected to complain loudly in public. But they well may go along with U.S. moves in private. "They'll support it if the U.S. can show there is no risk of the plan failing," says a European diplomat in Cairo. It will help if the U.S. can also make an effort to forge a Mideast peace deal.
Saddam was still powerful enough to crush a coup by dissident members of his Republican Guards last year. That's why the betting is that Washington will have to send more than perhaps 200,000 ground troops, several carrier groups, and hundreds of planes. Such a force could conquer not just Saddam--it would also win over skeptics in the region. By Stan Crock in Washington, with Susan Postlewaite in Cairo and Neal Sandler in Jerusalem EDITED BY Edited by Rose Brady