Hussein finally took one chance too many

January 14, 1993|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- For more than 18 months, Saddam Hussein had evaded United Nations Security Council resolutions, then backed down under threat of force.

But the latest ploy was bolder, a brazen challenge to a departing president and his successor, and neither could ignore it.

Besides posing a threat to allied planes patrolling the protected Shiite Muslim zone in southern Iraq, the Iraqi president had tried to interfere with further U.N. weapons inspections and had had his men walk roughshod over U.N. procedures for reclaiming munitions and other equipment in Kuwait.

The speed with which the southern missiles were destroyed yesterday, without allied casualties, shows that the military threat the missiles posed was minimal: As long as U.S. satellites and surveillance planes could track their whereabouts, they could be eliminated swiftly.

Iraq's incursions into Kuwait violated procedures agreed to with the United Nations but were not in themselves taken seriously here. Iraq's refusal to allow U.N. planes to land threatened to set back the weapons inspectors but aroused U.N. officials more than it did Americans.

Together, though, these actions posed a challenge that was larger than the sum of its parts. And it assumed greater proportions as the United States prepared to change administrations. Defying his departing nemesis, Mr. Hussein was testing the resolve of a new adversary.

It became clear over the weekend that mere threats no longer worked with Iraq. The White House miscalculated Saturday, declaring that Iraq had backed down when its removal of the missiles in the southern "no-fly" zone was incomplete. Subsequently, the missiles were rearranged, posing a new threat.

Declaring victory prematurely gave the appearance that the United States wanted to avoid confrontation.

As a result, President Bush was compelled to show not just that the Persian Gulf war allies could take out the missiles, but that they would. The United States, Britain and France, divided on many other issues from trade to military action in the Balkans, needed to show that as far as Iraq was concerned, they remained united.

The renewed assault on Iraq sets a key precedent that Bill Clinton won't have to set himself in office: The United States is willing to act militarily against Iraq to enforce U.N. cease-fire resolutions and won't have to act alone.

Mr. Clinton has sought to underscore that point with repeated strong support for Mr. Bush's action.

Its success probably will repress Mr. Hussein's defiance, at least during the early days of Bill Clinton's presidency, but not indefinitely.

William Quandt, a Brookings Institution Middle East expert, said the assault showed that Mr. Hussein "is not able to totally thumb his nose with impunity to a departing president."

But it leaves major questions that Mr. Clinton will have to face.

For one thing, yesterday's assault was no Desert Storm. It left most of Iraq's postwar reconstruction intact and showed how the vaunted coalition has diminished. Arab allies clearly supported the action but did so quietly and didn't send their own forces.

And the fact that a threatening missile battery in northern Iraq was left untouched indicated potential problems in getting support from Turkey, which is angry at Western failure to act forcefully in the Balkans.

"The coalition is not as big or as impressive as before," Mr. Quandt said. In the region, he said, there is increasing worry about the threat posed by Iran.

It is also clear, said Laurie Mylroie of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, that Mr. Hussein "has not changed his intentions or his plans," which are to wait for the balance of forces against him to shift and then exact revenge.

Iraq's repressed population, she said, must be disheartened by the limited action and the signal it sends that the United States is no longer intent on ousting Mr. Hussein.

But she applauded Secretary of State-designate Warren M. Christopher's pledge, in confirmation hearings yesterday, to move vigorously on prosecuting alleged Iraqi war crimes.

"It establishes reasons which are comprehensible as to why the U.S. can't live with Saddam Hussein in power," she said.

In coming weeks, a U.S. official said, the United Nations will have to cope with a renewed humanitarian crisis in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, which has been deprived of fuel by an Iraqi embargo.

In retrospect, former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger said yesterday on CNN, President Bush probably should have

continued Desert Storm long enough so that Iraq's military could have overthrown Mr. Hussein.

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