WASHINGTON — SADDAM HUSSEIN'S pattern of behavior toward the Western countries that monitor his moves - a pattern that can be described as "cheat and retreat" - is familiar by now. It also appears to work directly against him.
The assumption of most informed Western opinion is that the Iraqi leader is pushing his limits and drawing attention with the aim of wearing down the United Nations coalition.
If the coalition countries start falling away from the hard-line position led by the United States, then Saddam could use his full military firepower to assert control over Kurdish and Shiite minorities in the northern and southern ends of Iraq.
Instead, his actions have so far galvanized the coalition. Economic sanctions still isolate Iraq. The ban on Iraqi flights in southern Iraq has been reaffirmed after last week's standoff. The allies are taking Saddam's new refusal to allow UN arms inspectors to fly into the country except on Iraqi jets as seriously as his breach of the no-fly zone.
Even if the Western powers were inclined to let Iraq slide from their priority list of concerns, Saddam forces their full attention.
This does not mean that the coalition will not erode. Especially in neighboring countries with Kurdish and Shiite minorities of their own, support may weaken for tough retaliation against Iraqi infractions. Turkey, Syria, and Egypt are already wary of pushing Iraq too far and breaking up the country.
But Saddam could almost certainly disarm the political will of the countries holding the line against him by an occasional show of cooperation. "Appearing to comply would erode the coalition much more quickly," speculates Marvin Feuerwerger, director of defense issues at the America-Israel Political Action Committee. "So there's a certain perversity in what he's doing."
On the other hand, Saddam's strategy may be effective on two fronts. He is showing that he can seize the international stage and provoke a crisis at will. This form of strength, pitting Saddam once again against the world, may mobilize political support for him inside Iraq, where people face runaway inflation and food shortages. Too, it may win him some respect in the larger Arab world for standing up to the West.
Saddam's cheat-and-retreat encroachments may also be easing back the international limits imposed on Iraq.
His ban on UN flights into Iraq carrying arms inspectors is but the latest obstacle Saddam has put up to inspectors. Under the resolutions that ended the Gulf war, Iraq must allow international teams to inspect any sites and records suspected to be involved in nuclear, chemical, or biological weaponsmaking.
In the past two years, Saddam has forced inspectors to wait and has even detained them while the suspected records and equipment were removed from targeted inspection sites. American officials suspect that the Iraqis continue to pursue development of these weapons of mass destruction.
The short standoff between the US-led allies and Iraq last week over Iraqi antiaircraft missiles may or may not have ended with Iraq in the same position as it began. Saddam clearly backed down and disarmed the threat to international air patrols of southern Iraq. The US was officially satisfied and what appeared to be an imminent military strike over the weekend was averted.
On the other hand, American officials are still not sure where Iraq had put all its missile batteries and did not believe, even as they declared Iraq to have backed down, that Iraq had fully complied by returning all the batteries to their original deployments.
Western allies imposed the no-fly zone on Iraq south of the 32nd Parallel last August to protect Iraqi Shiites from air attack. On Dec. 27, US fighters shot down an Iraqi MIG-25 venturing into the zone. In early January, the Iraqis moved the antiaircraft missile batteries into the no-fly zone. On Jan. 6, Western allies gave Iraq 48 hours to remove them.
In northern Iraq, Saddam has succeeded in forcing a suspension of UN relief efforts to the Kurds. The convoys from Turkey were halted Dec. 16 after the third known bombing of a vehicle carrying relief supplies. Turkish drivers became increasingly unwilling to drive the trucks.
Part of Saddam's motive in the latest round of brinkmanship may be timed to the transition of power in Washington. If nothing else, he is asserting his survival, while the rival who led the crushing defeat of his armies, President Bush, is leaving power.