Saddam in the Saddle

HOPES that Saddam Hussein might somehow leave the scene have evaporated. The Iraqi leader appears to be firmly back in charge, touring the secure parts of his realm, urging people to rebuild from the ruins of a war he caused - and even firing his pistol into the air to the cheers of onlookers. With a bit less bombast, Saddam and his aides have also come up with plans for a more democratic Iraq. The Revolutionary Council, Saddam's hand-picked coterie of yes men, would be replaced by a 50-person advisory council, half of whom would be elected. All 250 members of the lower house of parliament would be chosen directly by voters. Elections are to be held within six months.

In other settings this would be cause for optimism. But in Iraq, such promises have been heard before. Democratization measures were first put forward in the 1970s, only to be shelved in favor of war with Iran. Saddam's mechanisms of control are intact - his pervasive secret police, his Baath Party structure, his nepotistic inner circle, his dominance of a possibly disgruntled but disorganized military, all of whose officers have to be Baath Party members. It's doubtful opposition forces will be allowed the freedom to launch a credible electoral challenge.

The criticisms of Saddam that were spoken in Baghdad's bazaars and splashed on walls in southern Iraq immediately following the Gulf-war defeat have reportedly faded.

In the north, the Kurds are leerily jockeying for a deal with Baghdad that will give them some degree of genuine autonomy. Saddam may grant that, since to contest it means risking retaliation from the allies, and a pacified Kurdish community is to his long-term advantage.

Saddam's plans probably include enough liberalization at home to temper dissent and give him a chance to dust off his regional agenda. He can be expected to play again the familiar tunes about Western imperialism, the Zionist threat, the dominance of poor Arabs by rich ones.

But the destructive results of this cynical power game have already been experienced more than once by Iraq's neighbors.

Of critical importance now is the international community's willingness to use its remaining economic leverage to pressure Saddam to make good on his liberalization promises. By all means take up Baghdad's offer to allow outsiders to monitor coming elections. A truly more open Iraq is the best way to usher out Saddam's tyranny.

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