Gulf War, Part 2: Iraq and US Tied

Saddam's moves split US from allies, prove access in north, but US restricts Iraqi jets

The military and diplomatic score is becoming clearer in the latest round of Iraq's cat-and-mouse game with the United States.

Even as US forces yesterday launched a second strike of 17 cruise missiles against targets in southern Iraq, strongman Saddam Hussein remained defiant.

So far, Saddam may consider this round of lethal gamesmanship to be his most successful since Iraq's defeat in the Gulf war.

That the events of the last six days may have brought more gains than losses to Saddam is a point not lost on Iraqi opponents in exile who argue that the US has not gone far enough.

The American attacks are a response to the weekend incursion by Saddam's forces into a Kurdish area of northern Iraq, a UN-declared safe area protected by US, British, and French air power since the 1991 Gulf war.

Yesterday's strikes aimed to finish off targets not destroyed during the first US attack Monday. And after the barrage by pilotless cruise missiles and F-16s, US warplanes began patrolling an expanded air exclusion zone in southern Iraq announced by President Clinton.

This new zone abuts the outskirts of Baghdad along the 33rd parallel and includes two major Iraqi air bases.

US policy since the Gulf war has sought to contain Iraq's still-powerful military and prevent possible aggression by Baghdad that might further destabilize the oil-rich region.

But Iraqi opponents of Saddam say the US response will in fact strengthen his regime.

"If the US air strikes are meant to be a warning, then it is merely a warning added to several other useless ones," says Ahmed Moufit, of the Amman-based Iraqi National Accord, an opposition group supported by the US and Saudi Arabia.

"Saddam is still defying international legitimacy and conventions," he says. "Time and again the [Western] policy of trying to change Saddam's dangerous policies has proved ineffective, if not a failure."

Saddam's gains

Among the gains that Saddam may deem worth adding to his scorecard:

*The Iraqi leader has shown to his opponents that his military ground forces could maneuver without - initially - direct US or allied interference.

The columns of soldiers, tanks, and heavy artillery that overran the Kurdish capital of Arbil on Saturday - which came at the behest of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) faction, to expel their Kurdish rivals from the town - was a not-so-gentle reminder that Iraq still maintains the largest, best-trained military force in the region.

Such an adventure also belies recent US intelligence and State Department assessments that Saddam's popular and military support is weakening and that his days are numbered.

Opposition leaders in exile expect this latest contest to strengthen him, in fact, despite unconfirmed reports of several coup attempts and a widespread conspiracy among senior officers that was found out in July.

*Saddam has put his stamp on the north by deploying troops there for the first time since the Gulf war, and by forging an alliance, however brief, with the KDP.

He may have ensured that a vital oil pipeline to Turkey will remain in the hands of nominal allies, in preparation for the eventual easing of UN sanctions against Iraqi oil exports.

Control of the north may also mean the dispatch of Saddam's political opponents who have - protected by the no-fly zone until now - thumbed their noses at Baghdad.

Amnesty International warned that the Iraqi incursion may have sparked a purge: "Reports of unlawful killings and arbitrary arrests ... raise fears that this could be the start of a purge by the Iraqi government of groups politically opposed to it and whose members had gone into hiding in the Kurdish-controlled zone," it said.

*The crisis has divided the US from many of its allies in the Mideast and Europe, and polarized Arab opinion throughout the Middle East.

The stalled US-sponsored peace process between Israel and Arab neighbors has been set back further by a rift among Western allies.

Three permanent UN Security Council members - France, Russia and China - argue that Saddam's incursion into the northern zone was merely reasserting Iraqi sovereignty over its own territory, and not a violation, as the US asserts.

*The incursion has sent a clear message to Iran - which supports a rival Kurdish faction, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan - that Baghdad would not tolerate its influence in the north. Here the anti-Iran policies of Saddam and the US dovetail, such that the move may have, in fact, demonstrated to Washington that the Iraqi leader is useful in bolstering US attempts to contain Iran.

The US has worked fruitlessly to forge peace between the Kurdish factions, concerned that Iran may gain advantage by playing peacemaker with the Kurds. "I can't think of anything good that can come of Iran's influence there," says a Western diplomat.

American concern about Iran's role could explain why US missile attacks centered on targets in the south, and why no further conditions were placed on Iraqi forces in the north.

But conflict is costly

For Saddam, however, the Clinton administration has ensured that he must tally losses alongside the gains. Among them:

*Clinton's military response has crippled Saddam's fighting capability in southern Iraq, ceded a large portion of the country to allied air control, and emasculated Iraq's Air Force. Air defense systems south of Baghdad have been knocked out.

Saddam has rebuilt his forces before, as he did after the Gulf war, but the price of his recent gamble in the north has been high.

The US "showed it can launch that kind of response anywhere at anytime in Iraq," says the Western diplomat, and that was its purpose.

The targeting of military installations by the US, some analysts suggest, could also increase discontent within the Iraqi army, possibly leading to more coup attempts.

*The US has said that an easing of UN sanctions on Iraqi oil sales to buy food and humanitarian goods, agreed last May, will not be considered again "for some time." The deal would have permitted Iraq to sell $2 billion in oil every six months to pay Gulf war reparations and improve the daily lives of Iraqi citizens who have been hardest hit by the sanctions.

But this loss for Saddam may be temporary, since the US and its allies had spent months trying to persuade the Iraqi leader to accept the stringent conditions attached to the deal, to ease the suffering of his people and deprive Saddam of a propaganda tool against the West.

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