A draw in Iraq U.S. missile strike: Saddam attack on Kurds punished, but U.S.-led coalition frayed.

September 04, 1996

AMERICA'S RESPONSE to Iraq's aggression against rebel Kurdish factions was just about as minimal as circumstances would allow if President Clinton was not to lose face and political advantage. It could be argued on the administration's behalf that Saddam Hussein's latest provocation was minor by his barbarian standards and that the kind of massive assault on Baghdad urged by Sen. Richard Lugar, a leading Republican foreign affairs spokesman, would be disproportionate and contrary to basic U.S. policy.

While the downfall of the Iraqi dictator has been high on the U.S. wish list since his 1990 invasion of Kuwait, President George Bush's refusal to decimate his defeated army reflected Washington's reluctance to dismember Iraq or eliminate the secularist -- i.e., anti-fundamentalist -- elements in the Baghdad regime.

Mr. Clinton's decision to extend the southern no-fly zone in Iraq all the way from the Kuwaiti border to the outskirts of Baghdad was of greater strategic importance than the more spectacular U.S. cruise missile strikes against air defense installations in the new areas of the no-fly zone. As a result, Saddam Hussein can fly his planes in a zone only 210 miles wide between the 33rd and 36th parallels. This constricted space interferes with Iraqi joint air-ground maneuvers in the area south of Baghdad.

The latest confrontation between the United States and Iraq leaves the international coalition that threw Iraq out of Kuwait five years ago somewhat frayed. Britain, Germany and Japan supported the action, but Russia, France and China were critical and such currently friendly Arab governments as Egypt and Jordan skittish. But as President Clinton noted, the United States sometimes has to act unilaterally in fulfilling its world leadership role.

If Saddam deserved what Sen. Robert C. Byrd accurately described as "a rap on the knuckles," it still left him with a tactical victory in the Kurdish region invaded by his forces and gave him greater control over coveted trade routes with Turkey. The Iran-backed Patriotic Union of Kurdistan was put to flight and the Kurdish Democratic Party now supported by Baghdad was well ensconced in its place.

So, in a way, this new display of U.S.-Iraqi enmity was a draw. Baghdad got what it wanted to the north while Washington strengthened its position in the south where oil-rich Kuwait and Saudi Arabia forever need protection. And while Saddam Hussein could again preen himself as leader of a people repeatedly punished for his actions, Mr. Clinton could display presidential power nine weeks before election day.

Pub Date: 9/04/96

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