Saddam again uses a crisis to make his regime look good

October 11, 1994|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Sun Staff Correspondent

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Saddam Hussein has managed to pull the world's chain once again.

Rather than appearing to his public as a loser, the Iraqi leader has scored a victory at home with maneuvers that begin to seem more skillful than thuggish.

By marching his troops a short way down the road toward Kuwait, he sent the British and U.S. armies frantically scrambling. He drew the spotlight on Iraq's complaints that the sanctions against his country are unfair.

And he cast the United States again in the role of enforcer, telling his people that the Americans are the villains, diverting their resentment from their own leader.

Iraq's ambassador to the United Nations announced yesterday that the country is withdrawing its troops from the south. The withdrawal was confirmed by the government here, although President Clinton said yesterday that there was no evidence of Iraqi withdrawal and one senior U.S. official cited "some reports" that Iraq has moved more troops into the border area.

In a confrontation that is often rhetorical, Baghdad did not see the announced pullback as a reversal, since it had never acknowledged that the troops had been sent toward the border for offensive purposes anyhow.

The Minister of Information, Hamid Yusef Hammadi, even denied that there were extra troops in the south: "I have heard such fabrications made by the Americans," he told the Iraqi News Agency yesterday. "No increase in the volume of troops has taken place."

If such duplicities seem transparent in the West, they play well among many in Iraq. Mr. Hussein's people face such bleak economic circumstances that they grasp at any reason to cheer.

"It's good. Before, the people didn't agree with what Saddam did in Kuwait. But now they like it. They say we're dead anyway," said a Baghdad taxi driver who, like many in this dictatorship, would not give his name.

Iraq's economy is gradually collapsing. Inflation is said to be around 1,000 percent a year. The Iraqi currency is becoming increasingly worthless. People are selling what they can to survive.

"Look at the houses. Gradually things disappear," said Viktor Wahlrs, deputy chief of the United Nations humanitarian efforts here. "They were selling their jewelry and there goes the car and then the air conditioner. And when there is nothing else, young men turn into thieves and young women turn to prostitution."

Mr. Hussein's dispatch of troops toward the south was seen by some as an attempt to divert attention from those economic woes. If so, it seemed at least temporarily effective.

"People are talking about what is going on in the south," said a carpet merchant in Baghdad. "For a day, maybe, they stop complaining about how hard life is."

Old hands at conflict

Mr. Hussein's habit of brinkmanship since the end of the Persian Gulf war has left his people practiced at readying for conflict. They stocked up on basic essentials, filled their cars with gasoline and hunkered down for the worst this week.

Baghdad appeared calm yesterday. Iraqis have long wearied of the question of which will come first: a U.S. attack or a retreat by their president.

The government orchestrated demonstrations, this time the whipped-up enthusiasm of "volunteers" clamoring before the television cameras at a local sport stadium for the chance to join commando units to fight the United States.

Outside the stadium, schools were in session and businesses operated normally.

Iraq also opened its gates to dozens of journalists, hoping that they will write about the suffering caused by the U.N. sanctions. For four years those sanctions have kept Iraq from the unrestricted sale of oil, its only resource, taking away the foundation of the economy.

Iraq's troop movements, seen in the West as threatening a replay of Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait, will likely encourage the U.N. Security Council to continue those sanctions.

To many Iraqis, the aggressive U.S. response portrays the United States as a bit too quick to resort to force and maybe just a touch vindictive. The U.S. government has appeared to be pressing to keep the sanctions to try to force Mr. Hussein from power, a point that the Iraqi leader was stressing.

Don't pressure U.N.

"If they think they can pressure the Security Council, that's stupid," said Jaakko Ylitalo, an official of the U.N. force in charge of inspecting Iraq's weapons compliance. "But the culture here is that when you say one thing, you mean something else."

Certainly, the announced Iraqi withdrawal does not resolve the earlier threat to stop cooperating with the U.N. weapons inspectors in Iraq if the Security Council continues the sanctions. But Mr. Ylitalo said that he is not worried. "We were not invited here by the Iraqi government, and whether Iraq likes us or not, we stay here," he said.

He said that his 70-person staff, which coordinates biological, chemical, nuclear, missile and aerial inspections, relies on Iraq to provide transportation, assistance and access to the sites.

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