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      Iraq Claims Victory In Diplomatic Defeat

    By Howard Schneider
    Washington Post Foreign Service
    Tuesday, November 17, 1998; Page A35

    BAGHDAD, Iraq, Nov. 16—In what is surely one of the most security conscious and tightly controlled nations on Earth, where public truth is limited to the official version, and public opinion echoes the government line, every setback can become a stride forward, and every defeat a glorious victory.

    But even the spinmasters of Baghdad were struggling to put a positive gloss on the outcome of Iraq's latest confrontation with the United Nations, which eased over the weekend when Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein agreed under threat of imminent U.S. airstrikes to permit the resumption of U.N. weapons inspections.

    By most independent reckonings, Saddam Hussein's defiance the past two weeks has accomplished little except to anger Iraq's supporters on the U.N. Security Council and empower the much-reviled U.N. weapons overseers to return here from Bahrain on Tuesday with renewed zeal and international backing. And it surely did nothing to hasten the lifting of the international trade embargo against Iraq.

    From Iraq's official point of view, however, the crisis has been a public relations triumph.

    With much of the world's media -- from CNN to New Zealand radio -- focused on Iraq over the past two weeks, Iraq was able "to prove to the whole world that our views are correct," Iraqi Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan said on state-run television. "This is the foundation and the basis of our victory."

    "We convinced the Arab masses that the United States policy towards Iraq is based on political motivations," said Salah Mukhtar, former editor of one of the country's newspapers and soon to become an ambassador. The attention brought by the crisis will help "convince the public opinion of the world" that Iraq was right to defy the United Nations while exposing Washington's plan to impose "the American way of life" on the world's 5 billion people.

    "They want to speak of democracy, human rights, market economics -- they want to impose that," Mukhtar said. "The concept of human rights adopted by the U.S. is a false one. . . . When you deny the Iraqi people food and medicine you can't ask them to practice democracy."

    While Iraqi claims of victory may ring hollow in this case, Baghdad has, in the past, profited handsomely by goading the United States into threats of military action, only to retreat at the last minute.

    That was the case last February, when U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan defused a similar crisis by offering concessions that critics on Capitol Hill and elsewhere derided as "appeasement." While Annan praised Saddam Hussein as a statesman, President Clinton was criticized at home and abroad for a willingness to use force without defining a compelling cause or a reasonable objective.

    This time it was Clinton who won compliments from Annan -- for showing restraint -- and Saddam Hussein who won the world's censure, for provoking a crisis that looked to many as if he was breaking the very promises he made to Annan last February.

    Far from gaining anything, the recent crisis probably weakened Iraq's position at a time when the country seemed, from some perspectives, to be moving on a more positive track. Saddam Hussein certainly won no points with Annan, who wrote that he was "saddened and burdened" by Iraq's decision to defy the inspectors once more.

    He may also have lost ground with Security Council members, in particular France and Russia, that have argued for an easing of sanctions; he almost certainly loses maneuvering room, with U.S. and British leaders saying they will launch military strikes at the first sign Iraq is not cooperating fully with the inspectors.

    "No warnings, no wrangling, no negotiations, no last-minute letters. The next withdrawal of cooperation and he will be hit," British Prime Minister Tony Blair told the country's Parliament.

    With few top officials offering public comments, and none providing in-depth interviews on the subject of Saddam Hussein's reasoning, it is not certain why the Iraqi leader challenged the United Nations at this time and in this way.

    Iraq's deputy prime minister, Tariq Aziz, said in an extended news conference last Thursday that the decision to stop cooperating with the weapons inspectors was largely a matter of frustration. Iraq, he said, felt as if the inspectors would be on the job indefinitely, and would never, because of U.S. maneuvering and control, certify that Iraq had completed its disarmament obligations and therefore should be liberated from the trade embargo.

    Among diplomats and political analysts here, theories abound about why Saddam Hussein did what he did: that he was convinced, for example, that the Clinton impeachment inquiry had weakened U.S. resolve; that recent diplomatic and trade overtures from other Arab states persuaded him he could move and still count on Arab support; that world distaste for economic sanctions would split the Security Council and leave the United States too isolated to act; that, with a review of Iraq's disarmament progress scheduled to begin soon, he could win concessions before it started.

    Whatever the reason, Baghdad University political scientist Wamid Nadhmi said the moral for Iraq is obvious. No matter how onerous the embargo, he said, Iraq "cannot move politically without some [international] support," he said.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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