Stuck in Iraq

May 13, 1991

Saddam Hussein may be a butcher and disaster for his people, a bad general and worse economist, but he also is a resourceful power politician whose skills should not be underestimated. He has the United States in a quagmire in northern Iraq, committed in all decency to protect the Kurdish people dispossessed by their own rebellion.

Having conceded that, and maintained daily high-level military contact to make it work, President Hussein has opposed enlargement of the safe haven or turning it over to the United Nations. The U.S. is stuck in a job it wants to hand over, burdened with too many Kurds and too little land. The Iraqi dictator saw to that.

The U.S. needs the provincial capital of Dohuk to get the Kurds off mountains in Turkey. But Iraqi resistance, which melted away when the Yanks entered Zakho, stiffens before Dohuk. The greater prizes are the nearby oil fields and the cities of Mosul and Kirkuk, which Saddam Hussein might feel a U.S. presence in Dohuk would threaten.

President Bush's plan to unload the refugees on the United Nations has not worked because Saddam Hussein vetoed it. The U.S. is not alone in the allied controlled zone. British, French, Dutch, Spanish and Italian troops help, and the logistical support of Turkey is crucial. But peace-keepers can only go where invited. They police the battlefields of southern Iraq that the U.S. has just vacated. Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar is right not to send any on his own authority where Saddam Hussein says they may not go.

The only way to impose blue-helmeted troops against Iraq's will would be for the Security Council to mandate their presence, lending an authority that the secretary-general lacks. It would also be a hostile act, somewhat like the war. The votes for it may not yet be there.

The Iraqi tyrant's quest for survival is intense. He is concentrating more on these problems than an American president eager to disengage from them. Mr. Bush can beat Mr. Hussein in an air battle. The trick is not to be outsmarted by him after. One way is to press the Security Council to take responsibility for the Kurds, making the tyrant accountable. Another is not to promise a quick exit of American personnel, even while working for just that.

It would be considerate of Saddam Hussein to fall down a well. He shows no willingness to oblige. He appears safe in Baghdad and among his army. Iraq pays a fearful price. The U.S. suggests that economic sanctions against Iraq will remain while Saddam Hussein rules. The Bush administration must resign itself to a long-lasting preoccupation with Iraq. The problems of the peace may not be so satisfying as the 100-hour land war, but the United States cannot walk away from them.

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