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  A Durable Saddam Declares 'Victory'

Saddam Hussein in a television address tells Iraqis they have achieved victory. (Reuters)
By Howard Schneider
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, December 21, 1998; Page A1

BAGHDAD, Iraq, Dec. 20 – In Iraq, victory is often defined as survival. And by that standard, the outcome of the latest military confrontation between Saddam Hussein and the combined strength of the United States and Britain was clear.

Without downing a plane, killing an enemy, taking a captive or making any evident progress toward the lifting of international trade sanctions, the Iraqi leader went on television today to render a verdict on four nights of intense aerial bombardment that ended Saturday night:

We won.

"You were up to the level that your leadership and your brother and comrade Saddam Hussein had hoped you would be at . . . so God rewarded you and delighted your hearts with the crown of victory," Saddam Hussein said in a taped address broadcast on Qatar-based Jazeera television.

"God wanted this [confrontation] to be an honor and glory for you . . . and shame and humiliation . . . to those who carried it, the enemies of God and humanity."

With rifle-toting plainclothes police deployed around the streets of Baghdad, and military troops dispersed in four zones around the country, there has been no apparent decay in Saddam Hussein's authority.

Although some of the diplomats here say the regime's military capabilities and, to a certain extent, its image of invulnerability, suffered a severe blow from U.S. attacks to which it was incapable of responding, they also contend it will take more than missiles and laser-guided bombs to alter Iraq's political landscape.

The attacks have left some here not so much angry as puzzled over a major military action that seems to have come and gone without any obvious effect on their lives, their city or the political circumstances of their country.

In press statements at the start of the attacks, top government officials said the Americans used cruise missiles because they knew they would lose in a man-to-man fight. In the view of diplomats and analysts here, it will take a more direct assault on the country's ruling elite for any change to occur.

"The regime is still here," said Khader Duleimi, editor of the English-language Baghdad Observer, as he ticked off U.S. presidents from Jimmy Carter to Bill Clinton that he says Saddam Hussein has outlasted, or will.

In the same vein, Iraqis celebrated the start of Ramadan this weekend with little concern about the bombardments of the last four nights.

The only thing most residents lost was "our time," as a consequence of being forced indoors at night, said Zuher Naim Zora, who works parking cars along the busy markets near Nahar Street.

Like most Iraqis, Zora was content to conceal himself in his home during the nightly bombing raids, eschewing bomb shelters with what he said was a generally accepted faith in the accuracy of U.S. missiles, notwithstanding the genuine threat of so-called collateral damage.

Although falling debris and shrapnel from missiles and Iraqi antiaircraft guns was a danger, "most of the strikes were precise," Zora said. "Most of the targets were military."

So far, Iraqi officials have yet to prove their claims of direct hits on hospitals and other civilian facilities, although some civilian buildings were damaged by shrapnel and shock waves from attacks on adjacent military or leadership targets.

No final casualty figures have been provided, but Iraqi officials gave preliminary estimates of more than 60 civilians killed in Baghdad alone. From interviews with doctors and relatives in hospitals, it appeared many of those casualties involved people who were near targeted buildings when they were hit by missiles.

If there was any larger-scale loss of civilian life, that has yet to be revealed. Hospitals, while their resources were taxed by the number of casualties received, have not been deluged by overflowing crowds of injured people.

Unlike the U.S. bombing raids on Baghdad during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, which targeted the power supply, bridges and other infrastructure, Operation Desert Fox did little to disrupt daily life here. There was no attempt by residents to evacuate the city or scramble to bomb shelters, no shortages of food or fuel or curtailment of store hours.

"It's a game, a play," said Hossayn Alwan, 28, who sells lantern wicks in a market. "Nothing has been changed."

Sorting out the repercussions of Operation Desert Fox could take weeks, involving new debates within the U.N. Security Council and assessments of how far four days of military action went in "degrading" Iraq's ability to begin producing nuclear, chemical or biological weapons.

What is clear from accounts of events leading up to the strike is the wide gap that apparently remains between Iraq's interpretation of its predicament and what others expect it to do before sanctions are lifted and the country is allowed to reintegrate fully into the world economy.

In a 90-minute meeting with Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz last Sunday, just a few days before bombing began, U.N. special envoy Prakash Shah said Aziz clearly felt Iraq was doing enough to satisfy the pledges of cooperation with weapons inspectors made last month, when a U.S. military strike was narrowly averted.

There was no talk of imminent U.S. military action, Shah said, and Aziz also seemed confident that the United Nations would soon authorize a full review of Iraq's progress on disarmament goals – a step the government here sees as a prelude to a lifting of sanctions.

Seven days and many cruise missiles later, diplomats, officials and citizens here took stock of a complicated muddle of issues left behind – whether weapons inspections will resume, whether sanctions will be lifted, and whether Saddam Hussein has been made in any way weaker or more compliant by the demonstration of U.S. force.

None of that is clear yet, and will not be until damage from the bombing is assessed, Iraq's leadership takes stock of its situation and discussions begin again between the Security Council and the government.

Shah said he expected to meet with Aziz today and hopes to open a discussion that will move the situation back onto a diplomatic footing. "Now is the time to focus on the morning after," he said.

Why the bombing happened is as much a topic of speculation here as is its effect on the future of sanctions and disarmament efforts.

Among the few objective observers here with freedom of movement and some access to government officials and other sources, members of the diplomatic community were divided in their assessment. Some blame the Iraqis, and feel the crisis could clearly have been averted if they had opened a few more doors to U.N. inspectors.

Others remain suspicious of Richard Butler, the head of the U.N. weapons inspection effort, for using a few instances of Iraqi noncooperation to write a report that was likely to trigger U.S. military action.

One observer suggested that Saddam Hussein might have welcomed the strike as a means of generating world sympathy for Iraq that perhaps would lead to an easing of the trade embargo. Officials here have already seized on the military action as an excuse to declare an end to the weapons inspections.

Military casualties have not been officially discussed, although some suggested they may be limited, both because many troops had been dispersed around the country and because others had been pulled from barracks and other potential target sites and lodged elsewhere.

"They think the Republican Guard will sit and wait for their missiles? They are crazy," said Duleimi.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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