WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration, which held out hopes at war's end that a shamed and angry Iraqi military would topple President Saddam Hussein, has now accepted the fact that he is not in imminent political danger and that it must look to the country's long-term economic straits to weaken him.
"There's no doubt that his domestic position has improved considerably in the past month," said a U.S. official, reflecting the views of government analysts.
"He decisively defeated the most serious threat to his regime" in crushing Kurdish and Shiite Muslim rebellions, and there are no efforts within his military to topple him, the official added.
President Bush's expressed willingness to consider giving Mr. Hussein safe passage to a third country and immunity from war crimes prosecution reflected the reality that Mr. Hussein's hold on power has in fact improved in the month since the Persian Gulf war ended.
And while some experts now believe that the administration must devise additional means of bringing sustained international pressure to bear on Mr. Hussein, policy-makers' attention is now almost exclusively focused on relieving the immense humanitarian problem posed by Iraq's Kurdish refugees.
Thus, rather than increase the pressure, President Bush said yesterday that he would consider easing sanctions barring oil sales by Iraq if it first cooperated with efforts to get relief to Kurdish refugees.
Iraq has asked the sanctions committee of the United Nations Security Council for permission to sell almost $1 billion worth of oil to enable it to buy emergency food and other humanitarian items.
Asked at a photo opportunity whether he were willing to relax the sanctions to this extent, Mr. Bush replied, "I will say that the priority is to get the relief to these people that are suffering. Then we'll talk about that.
"But this relief effort will go and must go smoothly, and then we can consider extraneous matters, matters that may be important to Iraq, but our priorities, the world's priorities, are set. . . . Let these refugees be settled on the flat places temporarily. Let them be fed, [let] medicine get in there. And then when that is done, everything's done peacefully and harmoniously, then I might be willing to consider something else."
Only the night before, Mr. Bush had said that "there will not be normalized relations with the United States, and I think this is true for most coalition partners, until Saddam Hussein is out of there. And we will continue the economic sanctions."
Many in the administration, along with Arab allies, thought that after Iraq's humiliating defeat in the Persian Gulf war, dissidents within its military would recognize the policy disaster Mr. Hussein had caused and rise up against him.
In the short term, the United States evidently hopes to exploit Iraq's eagerness to see a lifting of sanctions.
First, it wants to ensure that there is no Iraqi interference with the massive U.S. and allied military effort to develop low-lying encampments to lure refugees from the border mountains, where hundreds are dying daily.
Second, it hopes to ensure that northern Iraq as a whole is sufficiently pacified to persuade the refugees to return to their homes, protected mainly by the presence of large numbers of U.N. relief workers at various locations.
One official expressed hope that the world's response to the plight of the Kurds had shown Iraqis around Mr. Hussein that continuation of his policy of suppression would "only invite more pressure from the international community."
Beyond that, officials look to longer-term threats to Mr. Hussein's regime stemming from his country's enormous economic problems, including billions of dollars of needed infrastructure reconstruction.
"His long-term bankruptcy in all areas is going to be his downfall," an administration official said.