AMMAN, JORDAN — Saddam Hussein boldly crossed a line in the sand Saturday with his first incursion into US-protected northern Iraq since the 1991 Gulf war, and perhaps now hopes to weather promised American retaliation.
The Iraqi leader's surprise move could be nothing more than a cross-border advance to help a pro-Iraq Kurdish faction. Similar moves by Turkey and Iran have been made recently in the UN-designated safe zone above the 36th parallel, where the situation has collapsed into a chaotic free-for-all under the noses of America and its military allies.
But the lightning push by Iraqi forces to take the key Kurdish city of Arbil - prompting a US military alert in the region - also has the effect of testing the new US role as policeman in the oil-rich Mideast.
Iraq had largely withdrawn from Arbil yesterday, UN officials claimed. If true, that would complicate President Clinton's response, whether it is a military strike or tougher UN economic sanctions.
US, British, and French planes have been enforcing a "no-fly" zone in northern Iraq for five years. But before they could react, Baghdad appears to have achieved its apparent goal: help one Kurdish faction oust another backed by Iran, Iraq's long-time regional rival.
Iraq's advance came despite stern warnings from Washington that such a venture was "unacceptable" and would result in unspecified "consequences" that would damage the Iraqi regime.
Allied air forces doubled the number of sorties flown over the weekend, and some 23,000 US troops already in the region were ordered to be "prepared for any contingency."
Diplomats and American and UN officials in the region say that a multitude of power games are at work simultaneously, with players taking advantage of Kurdish divisions to exert their own influence. The Kurds are an ethnic group of 3.5 million people who have long been fighting to carve out a homeland in portions of Iran, Iraq, and Turkey.
Both the US and Iran - which have been increasingly at odds over issues of terrorism - have vied to serve as peacemakers between the Kurds.
The last round of US-sponsored talks, due to begin in London over the weekend, were abandoned.
The current convenient alliance between one Kurdish faction and its former foe, Baghdad, is not a surprise for long-time observers. "There are so many enemies within 15 miles of each other," said one Western source in northern Iraq. "The Kurds are not friends with Iran, Turkey, or Syria. They are not even friends with themselves."
Despite the longtime volatility of the area, few alarm bells sounded before Iraqi troops - estimates of their number range from 12,000 to 40,000 - crossed into the US-protected safe haven.
The Iraqi offensive raises questions about the quality of US intelligence in keeping an eye on the Iraqi military buildup, and whether the attack could have been prevented. It belies the conclusion of a report by the Central Intelligence Agency last May, which said that Saddam's grip was weakening, and that he was unlikely to survive in power for another year.
The capture of Arbil - and its quick change of hands to a loyal Kurdish faction - is seen as a test of Western and American resolve; one of the most serious since US-led allied forces reversed the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait in 1991.
Analysts in Baghdad said that an important reason for Saddam taking sides in the Kurdish dispute may be to ensure the safe export of Iraqi oil through pipelines that cross Kurdish territory to Turkey. Saddam agreed last May with the UN for a partial easing of sanctions that would allow Iraq to sell $2 billion worth of oil every six months in a tightly controlled program to purchase food and other humanitarian goods.
The latest clashes between the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) erupted Aug. 17. The fighting broke a fragile, US-brokered truce that had held for nearly one year.
The KDP accuses the PUK of receiving support from Iran, which abuts PUK territory to the east; its response was to appeal for assistance from an arch-rival, Saddam, whose numerous attempts at destroying Kurdish resistance for more than 20 years have led to UN accusations of genocide.
During the Gulf war the Kurdish opposition groups worked together against Saddam, and along with 1.5 million refugees, were driven out of Iraq to Turkey and Iran. American troops were deployed for several weeks, and the "safe haven"- known as Operation Provide Comfort -was established to entice the Kurds back to their homes with guarantees of protection.
The Kurds held elections in this autonomous region in 1992, each faction winning 50 percent of the vote, and a parliament was formed in Arbil. But as international aid levels dropped and the region fell from the world's agenda, disputes began in 1994 over the control of revenue from border traffic with Turkey.
The KDP took control of that border area, so the PUK took over Arbil. The subsequent conflict has left nearly 3,000 Kurdish fighters dead.
Neighbors compete for turf
It has also opened up northern Iraq to neighbors who want to put their own stamp on the "soft" status of the territory.
Turkey has benefited most, by launching numerous cross-border campaigns in the last 1-1/2 years to wipe out bases of Kurdish separatists of the Turkish Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), whose guerrillas have carried out attacks on civilian and military targets inside Turkey. The most significant operation lasted six weeks - with tacit allied approval - and drove 15 miles inside Iraqi territory.
In July, Iran also sent troops across its border into northern Iraq. The force of 2,000, backed up by heavy artillery and war planes, moved 30 miles into Iraq to destroy bases of Iranian Kurdish guerrillas. Iran announced that 30 of the main leaders of the group had been killed; it did not announce that its withdrawing forces left behind significant military hardware for its Iraqi allies, the PUK.
Though both Kurdish groups say they are committed to signing an American-brokered peace, they complain that Washington's efforts have been sporadic.
PUK leader Jalal Talabani told the Monitor in April that "anyone who can achieve peace is welcome. If the US can do it, or if Iran can do it, they are welcome."