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Iraq Special Report

 

Iraq Benefiting From Standoff

British and American crews load 1,000-pound laser-guided smart bombs in Kuwait. (By Stephanie McGehee/The Washington Post)
By John Lancaster
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, February 14, 1998; Page A01

MANAMA, Bahrain, Feb. 13—To many in the West, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's defiance of U.N. weapons inspections looks like reckless brinkmanship, an exercise in self-delusion that could well culminate in a punishing U.S.-led air attack on the pillars of his regime.

Such characterizations, however, ignore the benefits that already have accrued to the Iraqi leader during his latest standoff with Washington -- and the distinct possibility that an inconclusive bombing campaign could actually strengthen his grip on power, according to Arab officials and analysts and European diplomats in the region.

As a result of the latest crisis, Saddam Hussein has enhanced diplomatic ties between Iraq and other Arab countries, including such longtime foes as Egypt and Syria, sharply boosted his stature among the Arab masses and driven a wedge between the United States and Russia, whose defense minister warned Thursday that U.S. military action against Baghdad could cause dangerous strains in relations between the two U.N. Security Council members.

Anxiety also is building in the region about what might happen after the smoke clears from a U.S.-led attack, especially one that causes heavy civilian casualties. "The most likely scenario is, okay, a lot of things will be destroyed, and then what?" asked a European diplomat in the Middle East whose government differs with U.S. policy toward Iraq. "Saddam pops out of his bunker, dusts off his jacket and says, 'Okay, I won. I'm still alive.' "

Under this scenario, a unilateral U.S.-led attack would shatter the international consensus on maintaining trade sanctions against Iraq and provide Saddam Hussein with a ready-made excuse to throw out once and for all the U.N. arms inspectors, who remain the principal check on Iraq's ability to develop nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.

Such arguments may overstate the case. Notwithstanding their deep reservations about the Clinton administration's Iraq policy, friendly Arab countries have fallen grudgingly into line behind Washington, warning Baghdad that it will be responsible for any harm that befalls the country as a result of its defiance of the U.N. inspections.

As in the past, moreover, the credible threat of U.S. military force may yet force Saddam Hussein to back down and open "presidential sites" -- suspect facilities that Iraq contends are symbols of national sovereignty -- to full and unfettered access by the U.N. weapons inspection team, known by its acronym UNSCOM. Some Western diplomats already detect the beginnings of a stepping-back in the recent offer by Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz to offer limited access to eight of those sites under a plan brokered by Moscow.

"One can say that a resolution of the UNSCOM crisis is a major defeat for Saddam," a Western diplomat said.

But if Saddam Hussein has shown a propensity for catastrophic miscalculations, such as ordering his troops into Kuwait in 1990, he has proved adept since then at provoking crises that ultimately can work to his advantage. "If you look at his 30-year history, what is certain is he's not suicidal and he doesn't want to lose power," Laith Kubba, a founder of the opposition Iraqi National Congress, said in a telephone interview from London. "He tests the waters and, if need be, climbs down."

In October 1994, for example, Iraq massed troops and armor along the border with Kuwait, prompting the Clinton administration to rush thousands of American soldiers to the region as a deterrent to possible invasion. Saddam Hussein then withdrew his forces and, at Russia's urging a few weeks later, agreed formally to recognize Iraq's borders with Kuwait.

In doing so, however, Saddam Hussein forced the Clinton administration onto the defensive by generating tremendous international pressure for the lifting of the U.N. trade embargo -- pressure that only dissipated the following spring, when UNSCOM published evidence of hidden Iraqi weapons programs.

Another example of successful Iraqi brinkmanship occurred in late August and early September 1996, when Saddam Hussein sent his troops into the northern Iraqi city of Irbil, part of the U.S.-protected Kurdish "safe area." Although the Iraqi leader withdrew his forces after a few days, Iraq profited enormously from the limited incursion, which routed U.S.-backed opposition groups that had used northern Iraq as a base of operations aimed at toppling his regime.

Saddam Hussein also benefited politically from a U.S. military response -- 44 cruise missiles fired at Iraqi air defense sites -- that many Arabs regarded as unjustified. They noted that the Iraqi troops had acted within sovereign territory and at the invitation of one of two main Kurdish factions vying to control northern Iraq. In the Persian Gulf, meanwhile, Washington's Arab allies saw the missile strike as another half-measure that inflamed popular opinion against the U.S. presence in the gulf while doing nothing to threaten Saddam Hussein, whom they regard as a menace.

Partly as a consequence of the inconclusive missile strike -- one of three such "pinpricks" since the end of the Persian Gulf War -- many Arab analysts have gone so far as to accuse the United States of maneuvering to keep Saddam Hussein in power to prop up American arms sales in the region.

"There's a pattern of climbing down and also a pattern of taking the punches, knowing that they will be minor," said Ghassan Attiyeh, a former Iraqi diplomat and publisher of the Iraqi File, an authoritative London-based newsletter. "[Saddam Hussein] gains a lot by showing that the mighty United States is acting alone, hitting him without authorization from the Security Council."

The pattern has continued into the current crisis, which began in October when Baghdad ejected American members of the U.N. inspection team on grounds that they were acting as spies. Saddam Hussein allowed the Americans to return under a Russian-brokered compromise that created a body of technical experts -- independent from UNSCOM -- charged with assessing Iraq's compliance with U.N. resolutions mandating destruction of illegal weapons.

In return, Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov pledged to work for the lifting of sanctions. And some analysts saw the creation of the independent technical committee as a dilution of UNSCOM's authority.

Laurie Mylroie, an Iraq expert with the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute, said the episode is consistent with previous instances in which Saddam Hussein "provokes a crisis, and because the administration only seeks to restore the status quo ante, in the climbdown from the crisis he's better off. . . . There's no resolution."

As diplomats from Russia, France and the Arab League, among others, continue their frantic scramble to head off a U.S. air campaign, Saddam Hussein has made significant progress in easing Iraq's international isolation, especially in the Arab world. His foreign minister, Mohammed Saeed Sahhaf, was received this week in Cairo by President Hosni Mubarak and became the highest-ranking Iraqi official to meet with Syrian President Hafez Assad in nearly 20 years of intense rivalry between the two countries.

U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, meanwhile, has publicly urged the United States not to "humiliate" Baghdad and proposed a doubling of the oil-for-food program that allows limited Iraqi oil sales to pay for food and humanitarian supplies.

To be sure, many Arab leaders would like to see Saddam Hussein disappear from the scene. Washington has secured varying degrees of cooperation from all its Arab allies in the gulf, although only two -- Bahrain and Kuwait -- have agreed to the use of their airfields to launch military strikes against Iraq.

Even in Kuwait, moreover, there is deep concern that U.S. military action will only enhance Saddam Hussein's stature among his own people and in other Arab countries.

"You have to cripple the power of Iraq and not give him any reason to say, 'I am [still] here,' " Suleiman Shaheen, the Kuwaiti undersecretary of foreign affairs, said in an interview there this week. "Saddam Hussein lives always in the eye of the tempest, in the eye of the problem. So leave him [in place] and he will repeat [his challenges] again and again. If the head of state is there, that means he's the winner."


© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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