Saddam Hussein seized his moment to reassert some control over northern Iraq. His opening came through the bitter conflict between Kurdish factions in the region. One side in that conflict invited the dictator in. The question now is whether he can be forced out.
United States cruise-missile attacks may not have that effect very soon. They may, as President Clinton asserts, make for safer policing of an expanded no-fly zone over southern Iraq. Their targets were primarily air-defense installations. But Saddam's troops on the move in the north, grouping around major Kurdish population centers, will be hard to halt from the air without inflicting civilian casualties, although Iraqi supply lines can be hit.
The Iraqi move comes at a sensitive time for Mr. Clinton, as Saddam no doubt calculated. The president wants to avoid civilian casualties. And, mid- campaign, he certainly wants to avoid any ground commitment of US forces - something that would be problematic anyway, given the ambivalent feelings of US allies in the region, notably Turkey, and in Europe.
But Clinton has to show resolve - for both strategic and political reasons. Having embarked on the air attacks, and having pushed the no-fly zone up to the 33rd parallel, the US is gripped in yet another test of will and nerve with Saddam. How much damage to supply lines and defenses is the Iraqi leader willing to endure in order to assert his sovereignty over the north? How much use of expensive armament and danger to flyers is the US willing to endure?
The United Nations had just granted Iraq the right to limited oil sales in order to meet humanitarian needs. That operation is now off because of Saddam's thrust northward. The Iraqi leader's priorities are clear. He is determined, above all, to once again consolidate control.
This latest crisis with Iraq may revive complaints that Saddam should have been dealt with at the end of the Gulf war. It should remind the world of the threat posed by the combination of expansionist ambitions and the acquisition of weapons of mass destruction. The commitment five years ago to restrict Saddam's ability to rebuild his power was designed to keep that threat from resurfacing.
The protection of the Kurds in the north was part of that commitment. The US is right to maintain the strictures on Saddam, even though the Kurds are reverting to a historic pattern of factional strife - with the warring parties seeking out the strongest allies they can find right at hand. That means Baghdad and Tehran.
The US and its allies have a clear interest in enforcing the international sanctions and policing structures left after the Gulf war. Saddam will try to bend and crack them in the hope they will collapse. He must not succeed.