Attacks may enhance Hussein's stature Most Arab neighbors support his actions

September 04, 1996|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

AMMAN, Jordan -- The United States' missile attacks against Iraq yesterday may have weakened President Saddam Hussein's defensive capabilities and restricted his airspace.

But the damage is not considered fatal. In some ways it has enhanced his stature.

Many of Hussein's Arab neighbors have taken his side in this dispute -- unlike the 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

They viewed Iraq's military support of one Kurdish faction in fighting as an issue of sovereignty.

Others in the international community cited sovereignty in criticizing the U.S. airstrikes.

For Hussein, his gamble in the Kurdish-controlled north appears to have paid off, according to some Middle East experts, Western diplomats and Iraqi observers.

And, despite Washington's intention to make the Iraqi leader "pay a price for his aggression," as U.S. Defense Secretary William J. Perry put it, the Americans may actually have only solidified the status quo.

Radwan R. Abdulla, a political scientist in Amman, described the first American airstrikes as "predictable" and "totally ineffective.

"It will not change anything in terms of the military balance or his will," said Abdulla, who teaches at Jordan University.

The Iraqi assault on the Kurdish stronghold of Erbil was a military victory for the Baghdad-backed Kurdistan Democratic Party over the Iranian-supported Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, and thus a political win for Hussein.

"By using the army he gains its support," said Barry Rubin, director of the Center for Strategic Studies at Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv. "They're winning a victory, so it rebuilds morale after [their] defeat in the [Persian ] Gulf war. It develops patriotism."

Esmat Abdel Meguid, the secretary general of the Cairo-based Arab League, expressed concern yesterday that the initial American airstrike may exacerbate instability in "an area where we are looking for stability."

"The region's arch rivals -- Iraq and Iran -- individually have sided with opposing Kurdish factions," Meguid said in an interview with CNN. "I don't think the [U.S.] military action will facilitate the situation.

"It will complicate the situation. And it will strengthen President Saddam Hussein, not weaken him. I don't think this is the end of what we're seeing."

But, if Hussein wants to show off his military prowess, he will have less latitude with which to do it.

In attacking the mountainous city of Erbil, Iraq violated the conditions of Western-backed exclusion zones established after the gulf war to protect the Kurdish minorities in the north and Shiites in the south from the Iraqi army.

The United States, Britain, France and Turkey patrol the no-fly zones, although aerial activity is dominated by the United States.

America and its allies also now have further restricted Iraqi airspace in the south.

Greater control over the Iraqi leader's airspace will give the allies tighter control over Hussein, people such as British Defense Secretary Michael Portillo argued yesterday.

But Hussein called on his air force and troops to shoot allied aircraft out of the skies.

"Iraqis will proudly resist and will stand up and will not be shaken by the winds of evil," Hussein declared in his television speech yesterday.

For the past five years, since the end of the gulf war, Washington and its allies have been hoping that Hussein would be overthrown by dissidents fed up with conditions in which Iraqis live.

Intelligence sources and dissident groups have reported occasional attempts, but these always seem to end up with the (( collaborators being caught and executed.

Observers acknowledge it's difficult to predict what Hussein may do next.

"Observing Iraq for several years, one thing I've learned is not to apply reason and logic to Saddam's action," said one Amman-based Western diplomat who asked not to be identified.

"He is unpredictable. When the international community takes a strong stand he usually backs off, for a while he'll cooperate."

The diplomat said the Iraqi leader looks for opportunities to "drive a wedge" between the United States, Britain, France and the other members of the United Nations' Security Council.

Because of the present conflict, the United Nations postponed its decision to ease the trade embargo against Iraq.

Under the resolution, Iraq would have been able to sell some of its oil to raise funds for such badly needed humanitarian supplies as medicine.

The Iraqi people have suffered greatly under the trade sanctions that were implemented after the gulf war.

But one Western analyst who travels back and forth to Baghdad said the Iraqi economy has improved since the government appointed a new finance minister, reduced the money supply and took other measures.

The official said inflation had been controlled and the economy has "churned on."

Turkey, a strong trading partner with Iraq before the gulf war, has said it wants to resume that trade.

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