Hussein gambles with U.S. but holds few high cards Iraqi miscalculates in several areas

January 18, 1993|By Youssef M. Ibrahim | Youssef M. Ibrahim,New York Times News Service

KUWAIT CITY -- In choosing inauguration week for his latest challenge to the United States, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein appears to be gambling on two things: that by demonstrating that the Persian Gulf war alliance is not likely to go to war against Iraq again, he can weaken the U.S.-led coalition that crushed his forces two years ago, and that in the long run, this high-stakes gambit may enable him to break the back of the sanctions that have damaged the Iraqi economy.

In a blustery address to his people yesterday, Mr. Hussein sought to remind the world that on the second anniversary of the alliance's war against Iraq, he has survived, and that President Bush, his archenemy, is about to leave office.

But beyond these personal reasons, Mr. Hussein is believed to have concluded that many Arabs are uneasy about watching further punishment inflicted on Iraq in the name of the United Nations while, as he pointed out, non-Arab countries like Israel and Serbia flout U.N. resolutions without being penalized.

This sentiment has not been strong enough to cause Syria and Egypt, which waged war against Iraq in 1991, to express their "deep regret" at the U.S. air raids Wednesday.

Mr. Hussein has miscalculated before. He thought he could quickly conquer Iran, and instead ended up with an eight-year standoff that bled his country. He also apparently thought he could snatch Kuwait without paying much of a price. Instead, he provoked the gulf war.

Now, he appears to be counting on the West's tiring of Iraq because other major trouble spots like Somalia and Bosnia have more resonance in Western countries. And he clearly is aware that President-elect Bill Clinton has set his priorities on the domestic economy, although the events of the past week have moved Iraq much higher on Mr. Clinton's screen.

Mr. Hussein, of course, is in a sense playing without much of a hand. His economy is in miserable shape because of the continued sanctions on its exports, his military is severely weakened and his country is divided, with Kurds in the north and the Shiites in the south outside his tight control.

Nevertheless, Hussein is not unaware of another factor in the Middle East that plays to his advantage: the rising challenge of Islamic fundamentalism and Iran's ability to help it along while Iraq is prevented from playing much of a role in blocking it.

Even though Mr. Hussein launched the Iran-Iraq war in 1980 by invading Iran, he was backed at the time by the Saudis and the Kuwaitis, who feared that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's revolutionary Islamic fervor might spread across the gulf.

Several Arab leaders, including close allies of the United States, openly express the view these days that the continuing bleeding of Iraq, and its possible dismemberment, including possibly the Shiite hegemony in the south where Iran wields great influence, will lend great momentum to the fundamentalist movement, which has become the preoccupation of nearly every Arab government from Algeria to Saudi Arabia.

What diplomats in Kuwait City and elsewhere in the region marvel at, however, is the willingness of Hussein to bluster when Iraq is virtually a beggar in the region. It has been deprived of oil income for more than two years and is running out of cash and goodwill.

Iraqi currency has become worthless. Food and spare parts are in short supply and the government needs to remind the population repeatedly that the hardships are not a result of its policies but of the cruelty of the West and its "treasonous" Arab puppets.

"Every time he feels the pinch of the sanctions, he provokes another confrontation with the West," said Adel Darwish, a Middle East specialist in London.

Above all, Mr. Hussein, the man, the leader, has no place to run. No country would take him, and his enemies are too numerous.

"He is playing poker again," said an Iraqi dissident who has closely watched Hussein for years. "He is saying that anyone who wants to deal with Iraq has to deal with him on his terms, not theirs."

Although Mr. Hussein's miscalculations have been many and brutal, he may have sound reasons of late to believe that at a small cost he can tilt the balance of power of the coalition that successfully fought him, enough to get breathing space.

His immediate objectives are to ease the sanctions and, of course, to stay in power.

While fully aware that Iraq is not in any military position to intimidate its neighbors, he may believe he is still capable of keeping vulnerable Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait jumpy.

The repeated Iraqi incursions into Kuwait in recent days have triggered a panic in Kuwait City, with Kuwaitis withdrawing their hard-currency accounts from the banks and many readying cars to flee to Saudi Arabia.

Perhaps because he was aware of the fragile nature of the Kuwaiti state, Mr. Hussein took particular aim at its government, saying Iraqis and Kuwaitis were "one people" and would ultimately be united.

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