Hussein 'wins when he doesn't lose,' having regained territory, split the allies But White House argues its strategy prevents him from going on offensive

September 14, 1996|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Over the past two weeks, Saddam Hussein has flaunted anew his ability to command the attention of a superpower at his own whim.

President Clinton's dispatch of 5,000 troops, a second aircraft carrier, eight F-117A stealth fighter-bombers, four B-52 bombers and two Patriot anti-missile units to the region testify to the continuing cost to the American taxpayer of containing Iraqi aggression.

But Hussein has used the past two weeks to make tangible gains as well.

He has regained control over much of Kurdish territory in northern Iraq and exposed deep divisions in the coalition that formed to oust his troops from Kuwait 5 1/2 years ago.

"He wins when he doesn't lose. Clearly he has not lost in the past two weeks," said Richard Haass, director of foreign policy ,, studies at the Brookings Institution and a former White House adviser to President George Bush.

Under Republican criticism for failing to respond more forcefully, Clinton administration officials argue that Hussein has already been punished considerably with the expansion of the no-fly zone in southern Iraq that will be patrolled by American and British aircraft.

"He basically now has the ability to use his aircraft in the greater vicinity of Baghdad and that's it," said Nicholas Burns, the State Department spokesman. "He does not have any possibility right now of using military force against his neighbors, which is a very good thing. And that is the heart of American policy."

Iraq faces more punishment, a senior administration official warned yesterday: possible strikes against rebuilt anti-aircraft equipment that continues to threaten American pilots.

At the White House, press secretary Mike McCurry said, "We'll be looking at actions, not statements, from Baghdad."

But Hussein's new conciliatory tone, promising not to shoot at allied air patrols in the no-fly zones, may have reduced the chance that Iraq will suffer major damage as was implied by the Pentagon's threats Wednesday. The Iraqi change in tone

appears to be the product of Russian persuasion.

If Iraq has in fact dodged a big blow, Hussein will have begun and ended the crisis on his timetable.

It began when he defied American warnings against sending his troops into Erbil to drive out one Kurdish faction at the behest of TC another. The United States launched missile attacks against his anti-aircraft sites, but failed to knock out their capability or to suppress Hussein's defiant attitude.

Worse, they splintered the anti-Iraq coalition and in doing so, gave Republicans a new club to use against President Clinton.

Neither Turkey nor Saudi Arabia was willing to let Washington use their bases in the first round of missile attacks against Iraq. The U.S. attacks drew criticism from the immediate region, from Russia, even from France.

As Kurds in the north who were working for the United States were fleeing for their lives, Hussein's new Kurdish ally, Massoud Barzani, who heads the Kurdish Democratic Party, has gone on to capture more territory in northern Iraq.

This gives Hussein new control over an area covering a third of Iraq that for five years had enjoyed considerable autonomy.

Meanwhile, the defeated Kurdish faction, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan led by Jalal Talabani, has formed an alliance of convenience with Iran.

This, in turn, tends to help Hussein politically in the region, says Haass.

During Iraq's eight-year war with Iran, Hussein was seen by many in the region as a bulwark against an effort by Iran to dominate the Persian Gulf. Now he is assuming that role again.

The Patriotic Union's alliance with Iran "more than anything has changed Arab calculations," Haass said. "For most [countries in the region] Iran is a larger strategic problem" than Iraq.

As a result, "They will be less willing to see us or anyone else gang up on him."

Pub Date: 9/14/96

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