Iraqi leaders appear convinced world backs them over U.S. threat

Debate in U.N. over force heartens Baghdad


BAGHDAD, Iraq - As Iraq confronts the possibility of a new war with the United States, its leaders appear to have concluded that they have one decisive advantage that they lacked during the countdown to the Persian Gulf war 12 years ago: This time, they seem convinced, the world is on their side and against the United States.

"The world has abandoned America; it has become isolated," Saddam Hussein's No. 2 man, Izzat Ibrahim, boasted as he announced the result of last week's election: Iraqis, by official reckoning, had re-elected Hussein to his position of absolute power as president with 100 percent of the 11.4 million votes cast. Along with other leaders in Baghdad, Ibrahim accused the United States of warmongering, threatening not only Iraq but the entire Middle East.

Hussein's inner circle has also taken heart from the inability of the United States to win United Nations backing for a resolution threatening military action against Iraq. In 1991, by contrast, a broad coalition of more than 30 nations formed under American leadership, and under an unambiguous Security Council resolution, to trounce Iraqi occupation forces in Kuwait.

Iraqi leaders said last week that France and Russia, with their holding action in New York, were proving the depth of their "friendship" for Iraq and their unwillingness to accept American "hegemony."

But amid the speeches, news conferences and newspaper headlines boasting Iraq's defiance, there was also a sense that Baghdad's aging leaders, a tight circle of men that has changed little since the Persian Gulf war, were busy trying to convince themselves that they could ride out the most serious threat yet to their power. In this, there were strong echoes of the months before American bombs started falling in 1991, when Baghdad seemed to think it could bluff and maneuver its way into hanging on to Kuwait.

Without doubt, the international mood seems better for Iraq than it has in years. Opprobrium over the Kuwait invasion has long since faded, although Baghdad has defied many of the terms imposed on it by the United Nations after the war. In addition to frustrating weapons-inspection teams, Hussein has deftly manipulated the issue of U.N. economic sanctions, impressing much of the world with claims that a million Iraqi children have died from malnutrition brought on by the embargoes - one of several allegations that people who have traveled around Iraq regard as gross exaggerations at best.

But as the Kuwait crisis showed in the fall of 1990, opinions that are against America, or only lukewarm, can change as the weeks go on, a possibility that Iraq faces if the Security Council surmounts its differences and approves a new, tougher mandate for the weapons inspectors.

Iraqi officials have said they will make no announcement of their attitude toward a new weapons-inspection program until they see the text of a new resolution. But their record raises serious doubts that they will be ready to accept, for example, the immediate and unconditional access to Hussein's many palaces that the United States has demanded.

Hussein, in particular, might have to struggle to grasp the realities of the world outside Iraq. He has given no interviews to Western reporters since before the war and has not traveled outside the country. In the face of several assassination plots originating with his armed forces and state security forces, he has become increasingly reclusive, moving within his vast array of palaces and underground bunkers. When he does appear, as he did for the inaugural, the only voices he is exposed to are those of Iraqis shouting, "Saddam, Saddam, we are ready to sacrifice to you our blood and our soul."

The regime's fondness for compliant voices was only one of many similarities to the old Soviet Union that struck visitors in the past week. Baghdad's best hotels overflowed with more than 2,000 foreign guests, most of them eager to interrupt official news conferences with their praises of Hussein and their condemnation of the United States.

But much else in Baghdad suggests that ordinary Iraqis might not be of the uniform mind that their leaders would like the world to believe. Along with making public displays of fealty to Hussein, some have privately begun to show signs that they might be beginning to look to another kind of Iraq.

The signs are small - nothing that remotely resembles open dissidence, because that invariably ends with imprisonment or worse.

But some rules for visitors that in the days before the gulf war were nearly iron-clad have been quietly eased, and satirical remarks that would once have earned a stern reproof now sometimes get a knowing smile.

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