THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK AGAIN? 

NEW YORK — Should America send in 250,000 ground troops or will 25,000-pound bombs be enough? Do they have nerve gas, and if so would they use it? What about the Republican Guards? Are they as fierce, smart and loyal as advertised?

How many people will die?

It's the middle of a Bush administration, so it must be time to distract a recession-battered public with saber-rattling tirades equating Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein with Adolf Hitler. How else can Bush get his approval rating back up from 65 to 92 percent? But selling Americans on Gulf War 2: The Revenge will likely prove more difficult than convincing them to show up for the 1991 original. As Congressmen Chuck Hagel (R-NE) points out, "There are a number of difficult questions that need to be asked before Congress would support a resolution of war against Iraq."

First, there's no inciting incident: Saddam hasn't invaded Kuwait. The guy is making no effort to dis us properly. Second, the highly-anticipated ending of the first Gulf War, in which columns of victorious American troops were to be showered with roses and free oil by liberated Iraqis, never materialized. Third, the Afghan action-epic Tora Bora Bora, though initially well-received, is now considered trite, clichéd, and banal. Fourth, this expensive sequel would probably be financed exclusively by America: A July 27 London Times poll shows that most Britons, our biggest partners in the original GWB, are not up for a sequel.

The rationale for attacking Iraq changes by the day, according to administration insiders. First came the unfinished-business argument: Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990, used chemical gas and remains a threat in the Middle East. Never mind that the Iraqi dictator worked for our CIA when he did that stuff, and that during the last 12 years nothing worse has transpired than garden-variety Third World repression. Nevertheless, Bush declared Iraq a member of an "Axis of Evil" along with Iran and North Korea — unrelated countries that share neither common ideological nor geopolitical aims. Finally, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld implied a link between Iraq and Al Qaeda in planning September 11th. Rummy says "absolute proof" isn't necessary to justify an invasion, which merely confirms that we don't have any.

"`The Bushies` don't seem to have a cohesive message to describe the threat," a U.S. government analyst commented to Reuters' Carol Giacomo. "They seem to be throwing things at the wall to see what might stick, and nothing's taking hold."

AFTER SADDAM, CHAOS IN EASTERN EUROPE
"When there is a democratic Iraq — and that is our goal — an Iraq that truly cares for the welfare of its own people, it won't only be the people of Iraq who benefit from that. It will be the whole world and very much the region," a deluded U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz claimed on July 17. "Turkey stands to benefit enormously when Iraq becomes a normal country."

Remember, that's what they said about Afghanistan in October. Now Osama, Mullah Omar, and the Taliban are running loose in Kashmir, radical Islamist movements are on the rise in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia, and U.S. Special Forces are guarding Afghan president Hamid Karzai, a despised and ridiculed American puppet whose bribed soldiers can't be trusted not to kill him, much less defend their Kabul city-state. As bad as the Taliban were, the thugs we replaced them with may be even worse.

Getting rid of Saddam could lead to even more apocalyptic consequences.

Saddam's principle opponents are Iranian-backed Shiite groups and 20 million Sunni Kurds whose peshmerga fighters are struggling to create an independent Kurdish homeland comprising northern Iraq, southeastern Turkey, and extreme northwestern Iran. The Shiite Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) agree that we should depose Saddam, but no one wants another strongman to replace him. "Our viewpoint regarding regime change is that it has to be at the hands of the Iraqi people. We will not permit there to be foreign interference, whatever its nature, in orchestrating this change," SCIRI's Mohammad al-Hariri says.

Most experts expect Iraq to disintegrate into civil war after an overthrow of Saddam's oppressive Ba'ath Party. From 1994 to 1998 the KDP and PUK fought a brutal war over control of the "no fly zone" created by the American-led allies to protect Iraqi Kurds north of the 36th parallel. And a Turkish Kurdish group, the Kurdistan Workers' Party has split off from Iraqi Kurds, to launch guerrilla attacks within Turkey. A post-Saddam power vacuum will encourage the Iraqi Kurds to fight for the spoils within Iraq, with the winner taking on the Shiites. Iran would likely evict its own Kurds, most of whom arrived as refugees from the Gulf War, while arming the Shiites. And Turkey, which has already lost 30,000 lives in its own Kurdish civil war, will undoubtedly see a renewed drive for a free and independent Kurdistan carved out of its mountainous east, to join whatever Kurdish state emerges from a shattered postwar Iraq.

European and Middle Eastern, secular and Islamic, Turkey is the fragile strategic lynchpin that holds together eastern Europe and the Balkans. If Turkey falls apart, all hell will break loose between Muslim separatists and Slavic nationalists in what's left of Yugoslavia and Albania. Gulf War 2 could ultimately lead to millions of deaths spread across three time zones.

MORE ISLAMIST TERROR
Opinion of the United States is now at an all-time low among Muslims around the world. One reason is our continued support of Israel's military campaign against the Palestinian Authority. Another is that we replaced the Taliban with an oil-company stooge. Why give radical anti-American Islamists even more political ammunition with which to recruit suicide bombers and attract the financial donations that fund their assaults?

The administration calls attention to Iraq's "weapons of mass destruction," but a former U.N. weapons inspector says that Iraq possesses neither nuclear nor biological devices. (Of course, no one ever calls upon the U.S. to account for its weapons of mass destruction. Presumably white male Protestants are intrinsically more trustworthy than swarthy male Sunnis.) If and when Iraq attacks its neighbors or American interests, U.S. retribution might be justified. Until then, the current combination of weekly bombing raids and devastating economic sanctions should serve as sufficient punishment for whatever it is that Saddam did to offend delicate American sensibilities.

CARELESS TALK COSTS JOBS
Bush's irresponsible war talk is hurting an economy already battered by accounting scandals, the dot-com hangover and fleeing foreign investment. War rhetoric is driving up oil prices and making markets more volatile, says Allen Sinai, chief global economist at Decision Economics in Boston. "An invasion of Iraq raises a huge number of unanswered questions, and that kind of uncertainty is deadly for financial markets." Oil now costs about $26 per barrel, up from $22 in January, before Bush dubbed Iraq "evil." A jump like that, at a 30 percent per annum rate, boosts gasoline, heating, and transportation costs significantly, slamming the two-thirds of our economy that is dependent upon consumer spending. And the more the Bushies trash talk about the big ass-whuppin' they're going to give Saddam, the more oil prices will rise: "In the oil market, it's just starting to dawn on people that something big might be happening," says Roger Diwan, managing director of Petroleum Finance Co., a Washington consulting firm.

Do the Kurds deserve a homeland? Sure. Would Iraq be better off without Saddam? Probably. But if Americans are smart, we won't be the ones to blow over this particular house of cards. We have too much to lose and too little to gain in the mess that would certainly ensue.

Ted Rall's new book, To Afghanistan and Back, is now in its second edition.

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