Bombs Again on Iraq

January 14, 1993

Precisely two days short of two years after the start of the Persian Gulf war, American bombs again fell on Iraq yesterday, where a resilient Saddam Hussein still holds power as George Bush prepares to leave the White House. For Saddam, this is revenge -- perverse revenge to be sure -- for the humiliation he suffered after trying to seize and annex Kuwait.

More of his people have died, more of his military machine has been destroyed, but in the Baghdad dictator's scale of values this is small matter. He has outlasted an American president. His defiance of the West has made him a hero among the Muslim masses and a threat to their rulers.

For President Bush, this must be a time of second guessing -- of wondering if the tarnishing of his victory in Operation Desert Storm could have been avoided had he destroyed Saddam's Republican Guard divisions when he had them trapped. Instead, for humanitarian and geo-political reasons, he ended the lightning ground war after a "Hundred Hour" offensive and permitted the cease fire that Saddam has violated time and again.

In the euphoria of amazing battlefield feats, American officers overestimated the damage that had been inflicted on Iraqi troops. They did not foresee that in less than two months what was left of the Iraqi army would be crushing U.S.-encouraged rebellions by Kurds in the north and Shiites in the south. Washington's hopes that Saddam would be overthrown in a palace coup went a-glimmering.

Actually, Mr. Bush's rationale for avoiding complete destruction of Iraqi forces was not far distant from the reasons the center core of Baathist power held firm in Baghdad. Neither the Americans nor the ruling Sunni minority wanted Iraq dismembered through the creation of a Kurdish state that could destabilize neighboring Turkey. Nor did they relish a fundamentalist Shiite state in the south effectively controlled by Iran.

The United States would gladly have settled for another dictator in Baghdad so long as he was reasonably cooperative and not named Saddam. The war was not about democracy. It was about insuring a stable flow of oil at acceptable prices, and it was about stopping a rogue regime from gobbling up a small neighbor.

In addressing the latter goal, the United Nations established precedents in Iraq that can have profound impact on the post-Cold War world. By declaring no-fly zones, imposing embargoes and dismantling facilities for weapons of mass destruction, the international community shrank Iraq's sovereignty. It was an infringement Saddam did not suffer lightly, as witness his repeated efforts to thwart and defy the U.N. As part of his chosen role of a Muslim hero defying the West, he was willing to provoke and take punishment.

President Bush was left with little choice. With the authority of the U.N. at stake and the U.S. challenged in the midst of a presidential transition, he rightly ordered the bombing yesterday Iraqi missile batteries that threatened allied aircraft and sent a battalion into Kuwait to protect its borders from repeated enemy incursions.

President-elect Clinton's support was "four-square" for this unusual action by a lame-duck president. The flareup has given Mr. Clinton fair warning that Iraq will become his headache when he moves into the White House.

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