Saddam's success against the Kurds Reasserts control: Baghdad-backed Kurds push enemies toward Iran border.

September 10, 1996

SADDAM HUSSEIN's success in regaining effective control of the Kurdish region of northern Iraq easily exceeds any gains the United States may have made in extending its southern no-fly zone and attacking Iraqi air defense installations. While President Clinton was quick -- perhaps too quick -- to call last week's U.S. response a success, he now faces the fact that the Iraqi dictator is again an effective trouble-maker in the world's most abundant oil-producing region.

The U.S. effort after the end of the gulf war to protect the Kurdish population of northern Iraq has turned into a fiasco. Turkey as the funnel for humanitarian aid is believed to have played one Iraqi Kurdish faction against another as part of its campaign against its own Kurdish rebellion. What may have been the two largest CIA operations since the Afghan war have collapsed, probably sealing the fate of hundreds of Iraqis and Kurds enlisted by the U.S. in plots against the Baghdad regime.

While the president can order renewed missile attacks on military targets south from Baghdad to the Kuwaiti border, the whole question of air superiority is a diversion. American planes rule the skies at will, but this in no way prevents Saddam Hussein from sending his army where he wishes in the northern sector. It also seems that the international preoccupation with shutting down his nuclear and chemical warfare programs has left him relatively free to rebuild his ground forces.

Any renewal of missile attacks will again find the United States going it alone. None of Washington's supposed Arab allies would have anything to do with U.S. military actions they considered an infringement of Iraq's sovereignty. Russia seized its chance to reassert a role in Middle Eastern affairs and to accuse Mr. Clinton of seeking domestic political advantage. U.S. representatives at the United Nations were hamstrung as governments annoyed by U.S. attempts unilaterally to control their trade policies or dictate the choice of the next U.N. secretary general got their revenge.

If the situation in Iraq continues to develop contrary to U.S. interests, criticism from Republicans and area experts long worried about Washington's inattention is bound to increase. Only eight weeks before election, with trouble also brewing in Bosnia, Mr. Clinton may be confronted with the biggest foreign policy problems of his presidency.

Pub Date: 9/10/96

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