Latest confrontation was unavoidable

January 14, 1993|By Robin Wright | Robin Wright,Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- For Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and the United States, the latest confrontation appears to be one both sides wanted. And after six months of tension, it was virtually unavoidable.

As Mr. Saddam begins a third bitter winter of economic sanctions and political isolation, he hopes to bolster his standing at home with a foreign crisis that would divert attention from the hardships of rationed food and fuel.

The Iraqi leader apparently is calculating that an allied air strike is a tolerable price to pay to show that he can still defy the West and stay in power. "It's become one of Saddam's favorite tricks of survival," one Middle East specialist said.

As President Bush prepares to hand over power next week, the air strike lets him, and his successor, Bill Clinton, send a message to Iraq that its fortunes have not changed and that the new administration offers no relief. It also reminds the Iraqi military about the cost of continued support for Mr. Saddam, potentially increasing the chance he will be overthrown.

On another level, the raid provides the Bush administration with a final chance to enhance its Persian Gulf war legacy, tainted by Mr. Saddam's hold on power.

"The White House is just itching to have a go at Saddam," said a former Reagan administration official. "Time and time again, Saddam has gotten away with flouting U.N. resolutions. He's thumbed his nose at Bush and the world without having to pay a price."

"This administration has always felt he shouldn't get off scot-free," the official said, "and this is the opportunity to teach him a lesson."

Yet the confrontation also contains risks for both leaders, Middle East analysts said.

For Mr. Saddam, the danger has always been one of pushing his luck too far and incurring the wrath of even his inner circle, thus increasing the risk of a coup or assassination attempt.

For Mr. Bush, the risk is in the possibility that the Iraqis could shoot down an allied warplane and perhaps capture its pilot. "Nothing would be worse for Bush than to leave office with a new American prisoner of war being held in Baghdad," said the former U.S. official.

Yesterday's brief raid posed less risk for allied pilots but it may not have had enough impact to discourage Mr. Saddam from testing or provoking the coalition again. "Saddam not only didn't get his nose bloodied, he can walk away from this one smiling," said a U.S. Iraq specialist, who thought that the raid should have been more extensive.

Although U.S. officials date Mr. Saddam's flagrant violations of United Nations resolutions to the 1991 war, the current round originated with last summer's three-week confrontation at Baghdad's Agriculture Ministry, where U.N. weapons inspectors were refused entry.

Western intelligence believed that a trove of documents on Iraq's ballistic missile program and other weapons of mass destruction were hidden in the ministry. In principle, the U.N. inspectors are supposed to be able to go anywhere, any time in Iraq.

During the subsequent stand-off in July, U.N. inspectors were forced to camp in the ministry parking lot, while tension grew daily from orchestrated Iraqi demonstrations. The dispute ended a compromise, under which all but the two American members of the U.N. inspection team were allowed into the ministry.

But inspectors came out empty-handed. The Iraqis are widely believed to have used the 17-day interval to remove or destroy records or weapons stored inside.

The Iraqi leader also emerged from the test of wills stronger at home. He demonstrated his ability to stand up to the United States and the United Nations.

Senior U.S. officials admitted as much. After settlement of the inspections controversy, national security adviser Brent Scowcroft cautioned that the compromise "deals with the tip of the iceberg, and the whole iceberg remains. . . . I think it's important that the United Nations now keep the pressure on Iraq and not let [Saddam] willy-nilly decide what he will or will not do."

Instead, Mr. Saddam has become increasingly belligerent, chipping away at U.N. authority and the U.S.-led coalition over the last six months.

Since the war ended almost two years ago, the biggest persistent problem for the United States and its allies has been Iraqi hindrance of the U.N. weapons inspectors.

Indeed, of the three flash-points over the last week -- missile deployment in the southern air exclusion zone, retrieval of Iraqi goods and war material along the new border and Iraq's refusal to allow the U.N. inspectors to fly U.N. planes and helicopters in or around Iraq -- the latter is the most serious, according to senior Pentagon officials.

"The missiles are a serious issue but they don't really present a major threat to us or to any country in the gulf," said an analyst. "And the excursions at the border are more like violations of the spirit rather than the letter of agreements. On a scale, they're nuisances more than crises.

"But long-term, our ability to monitor his weapons is extremely important. That's where the real challenge is."

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