Having hit Saddam Hussein where it hurts–in the Republican Guard barracks, military intelligence headquarters and other strategic components of his regime’s power base–during Operation Desert Fox, the Clinton Administration has escalated its plan to overthrow him. Concluding that Saddam is isolated as never before, it has steadily enlarged the scope of its two-month war of attrition against Baghdad. To boost the Iraqi opposition, the United States has named seven groups eligible for US military training and arms, authorized by the 1998 Iraq Liberation Act. It has read as a sign of desperation Saddam’s threats of retribution against neighboring countries for their continued cooperation with the United States and Britain–a sign that his downfall is just a matter of time.

But the military and diplomatic realities are far more complicated than the Administration wants to acknowledge. Consider the official justification for the no-fly zones in northern and southern Iraq. These exclusion zones have turned the Iraqi territory above the 36th parallel and below the 33rd parallel into a no-go area for Iraq’s air force. Washington claims that the ban is meant to protect the populations of Iraq’s Kurdish north and predominantly Shiite south from Saddam’s repressive policies and that it is sanctified by the April 1991 UN Security Council Resolution 688 concerning “the repression of the Iraqi civilian population.” Iraq argues that it never accepted this resolution because it constituted intervention in Iraq’s internal affairs and that by violating Iraqi airspace the US and British planes are thus exposing themselves to attack.

Unlike all other resolutions on Iraq following its invasion of Kuwait in 1990, Resolution 688 did not mention Chapter VII of the UN Charter–titled “Action with Respect to Threats to the Peace, Breaches of the Peace, and Acts of Aggression”–which confers international legality on a resolution. And there is no mention of the no-fly zones in the text of 688, as two of the Security Council’s permanent members–China and Russia–point out. Indeed, after the Pentagon’s first strike against an Iraqi air defense system on December 28, China criticized these zones as violations of the UN Charter and international norms.

Following Desert Fox, the Pentagon first authorized its pilots to hit the Iraqi ground radar sites that illuminated US warplanes, then allowed them to strike any targets if they were attacked or felt threatened, and finally classified any intrusion into the zones by flying Iraqi aircraft as an offensive act deserving punishment. Given the escalating interpretation of the zones, isn’t it time the Security Council debated the issue and decided on their legality?

On the diplomatic front, while in mid-February the media made much of Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz’s failure to persuade Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit to deny US and British warplanes the use of a Turkish airbase, two important points were overlooked. First, holding talks with Aziz was a clever maneuver by Ecevit, a socialist and anti-imperialist, to offset Washington’s pressure to cooperate actively in Saddam’s ouster. “It is not our tradition to make judgments on how countries should be ruled, especially neighboring countries, and how they should be changed,” said a Turkish foreign ministry spokesman after the Ecevit-Aziz meeting. (This echoed what Martin Indyk, the US assistant secretary for the Near East, was told earlier in four of the six gulf states–with the exceptions of Kuwait and Bahrain, where the US Fifth Fleet is based.) Second, the Iraqis argue that Washington’s professed concern for Iraqi Kurds is unwarranted. Having reached the Turkish border overland through Iraqi Kurdistan on his way to Ankara, Aziz said, “America and Britain claim they are protecting the Kurds from the Iraqi government. Then how can I travel so easily [through Kurdish territory]?” He chose not to mention his secret meeting with Massoud Barzani, the Kurdish leader in northern Iraq.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ismail Cem summarized the region’s primary apprehension: “Washington’s policy is to change the system in Iraq regardless of what happens. Our concern is Iraq’s territorial integrity.” Beyond a vague notion, mentioned in recent Clinton Administration briefings, of turning post-Saddam Iraq into a federation of three autonomous regions dominated respectively by Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis, the US plan remains hazy.

Given the CIA’s admitted involvement in four failed coup attempts against Saddam (see Scott Ritter’s forthcoming book, Endgame) and Desert Fox’s aim to “degrade” Iraq’s military machine to create disaffection among officers, replacing Saddam with a pliable general apparently remains Washington’s best-case scenario. But how will such a new ruler cope with the inevitable bloodletting as thousands of Iraqis, who have suffered under Saddam’s rule, kill intelligence agents and Baath Party officials? How will Iran, with a network of agents and sympathizers among Iraqi Shiites, respond to a pro-US general in Baghdad? How will Syria’s President Assad, surrounded by hostile Israel, unfriendly Turkey and an untested young King of Jordan, react to the emergence of a pro-US regime to the east? No prizes for the answers, which point toward a civil war in post-Saddam Iraq, which will inevitably draw in Jordan, Syria, Turkey, Iran, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and destabilize the whole region. Is Washington ready to face the logical conclusion of its present policy?