December 29, 1997 in Nation/World

General Says Saddam Shows No Sign Of Losing Grip On Power Zinni Says U.S. Forces Must Stay In Region Indefinitely

Associated Press

President Saddam Hussein shows no sign of loosening his hold on power in Iraq and is likely to remain for years to come a threat to vital U.S. interests, the U.S. area commander says.

Calling Saddam “a great thug,” Marine Corps Gen. Anthony Zinni said the Iraqi leader will prove difficult to remove from power.

“No one’s going to get in close to take the shot. Anyone who would dare to would be self-sacrifice,” said Zinni, who as head of the U.S. Central Command has responsibility for American military operations in the Persian Gulf area.

And as a result of Saddam’s staying power, U.S. forces - including troops Zinni visited Sunday in central Saudi Arabia and Kuwait - must remain in the oil-rich region indefinitely, he said.

Zinni’s bleak assessment comes as U.S. frustration over Saddam’s defiance of U.N. weapons inspections runs high, with increasingly mainstream voices in the United States are urging his forcible removal. Zinni gave little credence to such proposals.

“The (Iraqi) people would like to see him gone, but they’re too much afraid,” Zinni said. “It’s a very rock-solid dictatorship, run ruthlessly. It’s hard for opposition to take hold.”

Saddam runs Iraq like an organized crime boss, Zinni said.

“He’s a great thug,” Zinni said. “Any potential opposition gets taken out pretty quickly, even if it’s just a rumor of opposition.”

With such a potential foe remaining in power, Zinni offered little comfort to those who would like to see the United States scale back its costly military presence in the gulf. Nowhere is that presence more visible than at Prince Sultan Air Base, Saudi Arabia, Zinni’s first stop on a four-day trip to the region. The sprawling military city in the desert is home to 4,500 U.S. airmen charged with patrolling the skies over southern Iraq.

“I think you’re going to see a U.S. presence for a while to come,” said Zinni. “I don’t think we can tell (the troops) that there’s an end date, that the sanctions will be over in three years, four years, whatever.”

U.S. intelligence, which closely watches the Iraqi military, says Saddam’s military strength is eroding in some areas as tanks and planes age and as international sanctions deny the Iraqi forces new weapons or even spare parts for old ones.

“We have very good intelligence about him. We know what kind of airplanes he has. We know how to engage,” said Air Force Brig. Gen. Bentley Rayburn, who commands the U.S. forces at Prince Sultan. “If the Iraqis start anything, we know how to just whale on them, big time.”

© Copyright 1997 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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