The War Ended On Bush's Schedule And Bush's Terms WAR IN THE GULF

March 10, 1991|By Frank Starr | Frank Starr,Chief of The Sun's Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — Washington. Even when Iraqi soldiers refused to fight, the war ended on George Bush's schedule and on his terms. No one else's.

He had repeatedly warned that the war was not going to be "a long, drawn-out, difficult situation with an ill-defined ending." And as the endgame began, President Bush and his military commander, on parallel tracks, combined to leave Saddam Hussein no escape.

On the ground, the allied forces like a huge gate swung in an arc to the north and then east, locking shut on the Euphrates River and trapping the remains of a badly damaged army between its enemy and the sea.

With equal implacability, the diplomatic door slammed shut as ,, Mr. Hussein offered a series of ever broader but always inadequate proposals for withdrawal -- all of them aimed at allowing him to claim victory at home and salvage his military power.

Several times during that process Mr. Hussein had the clear opportunity to pull out his army and save it -- and probably himself -- but he silently let them pass. The "nightmare scenario" the administration actively feared did not occur.

The end began -- at least Iraq recognized it -- on Feb. 15, a month after the start of round-the-clock air bombardment that destroyed Iraq's capacity to wage an extended war. On that day Baghdad radio broadcast its first concession, an offer to withdraw under conditions that generally accrue to the victor. Mr. Bush dismissed it as "a cruel hoax."

No one, even the most disappointed, argued for long that the U.S. dismissal had been a mistake. The Iraqi conditions required not only allied withdrawal from the Persian Gulf region but Israeli withdrawal from lands it had occupied in 1967, allied rebuilding of Iraq, and automatic repeal of the 12 United Nations resolutions applying to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.

But three days later the Soviet Union, apparently sensing an opportunity to retrieve for itself lost influence in the Middle East, had picked up a scent of peace and shaped a proposal that would have helped Mr. Hussein fashion a political escape from the disaster President Bush was planning for him.

Though Mr. Bush dismissed it as falling "well short of what would be required," the Soviet proposal presented an awkward problem for the administration and an opportunity for Mr. Hussein. Soviet support in the United Nations had made the allied effort possible in the first place, and it remained a necessary pillar of success.

Still, U.S. and Israeli officials feared that Mr. Hussein might recognize that bombing had destroyed his capacity to sustain the long war of attrition he had hoped to win and that, by the Soviet proposal, he could claim victory, withdraw his large army into Iraq and deprive the allies of an excuse to destroy it.

With much of his air force safe in Iran, he would remain the region's dominant military power. And with Kuwait freed of his occupation there would be little public justification for pursuing the war.

On Feb. 21, when the Soviet presidential spokesman Vitaly Ignatenko triumphantly announced an Iraqi-Soviet peace agreement -- inviting reporters to applaud it -- Mr. Bush responded by politely thanking Moscow and issuing an ultimatum for withdrawal to begin within 24 hours and end within a week.

That nearly guaranteed Iraqi rejection and unsurprisingly it came within hours, apparently assuring the start of the final ground war, though its launch date had been established in planning weeks earlier.

One hundred hours later Mr. Bush rejected one last Hussein speech as "an outrage" and declared a unilateral cease-fire that, he said, would end upon Iraqi failure to meet any of his conditions.

Only then did a chauffeur and a junior diplomat deliver in the early morning to the U.N. the much demanded acceptance of all 12 U.N. resolutions.

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