Where Players Stand After Iraq Crisis

Saddam finally blinks, but the episode may constrain US options in the future.

The most dangerous Middle East standoff since the end of the Gulf War appears to be over. But its outcome may show that the United States now has considerably less room to maneuver against Iraq than it did after leading the coalition that booted Saddam Hussein from Kuwait nearly seven years ago.

Clearly, the episode has left power politics in the Middle East and beyond different than it found them.

On the surface, the reversal of Iraq's ban on US weapons inspectors - which was brokered by Russia - seems a victory for the UN and the US.

But if nothing else, the solution of the latest Saddam crisis has raised the specter of cracks in the old Gulf War coalition.

Russia will clearly continue to push for an early lifting of Iraqi sanctions - and Moscow's influence has been boosted by its successful diplomacy this week.

Egypt and other US allies in the Middle East appeared set against the retaliatory air strikes that have been standard US reaction to Iraqi misdeeds.

Saddam himself gained three weeks' freedom from weapons inspections. And he has again shouldered his way to the top of the world's agenda.

"There is no question but that this resolution of the crisis ... is a positive score for Saddam Hussein," says Shibley Telhami, a Middle East expert at the University of Maryland.

The apparent end of the crisis came yesterday when Iraq reversed its ban on US weapons inspectors, ending its defiance of United Nations' insistence that Saddam can't choose the people who comb his country looking for evidence of poison gas, anthrax, or nuclear weapons.

At time of writing, the situation in regard to the standoff was fluid. Inspectors were set to return to Iraq, perhaps as early as this week. The UN Special Commission that oversees the inspections was scheduled to meet today to discuss ways to reform inspection procedures.

Yesterday the Clinton administration, for its part, insisted that Iraq had not helped itself at all. White House spokesman Michael McCurry said Saddam had been "nailed in an effort to defy the world community."

And some other US experts said Saddam's gains might turn out to be largely symbolic.

It's true that popular opinion in the Arab world may now judge that Iraq has stood up to the US, says Gary Sick of Columbia University. But the fact is that Saddam won no substantive concession from the UN in regard to weapons inspections, he says.

Those inspections, which have turned out to be more thorough than Saddam may have counted on in the wake of the Gulf War, will now go back to ground zero and continue their work.

"I think this was a clear case of Saddam pushing to see what he could do," says Mr. Sick.

Other fallout from the standoff:

Russia

Russia is basking in the glow of a rare diplomatic victory, after managing to persuade Iraq to back down in its standoff with the UN over weapons inspectors.

The deal marks "a serious success by Russian diplomacy which will help to diffuse the tension around Iraq," says Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Valery Nesterushkin.

The flurry of negotiations that Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov held with Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz did more than stave off a threatened US military strike. They marked the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union that Moscow was able to play a decisive role in a major international crisis.

Mr. Primakov won an Iraqi commitment to allow all UN weapons inspectors back into Iraq with a promise that Russia would "energetically promote the speedy lifting of sanctions against Iraq on the basis of its compliance with the corresponding UN Security Council resolutions," according to a joint Russian-Iraqi statement.

This may be no more than Moscow has been doing all along and hardly represents a compromise either for Russia or the international community. Rather, Primakov - trusted by the Iraqi leadership - provided a ladder down which Baghdad could climb without losing too much face.

Arab states

Despite widespread criticism among Arab states about American saber rattling, the US military build-up may have helped convince Saddam to back down. "America used diplomatic pressure very well, and the show of force worked," says Jamal al-Suwaidi, director of The Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research in Abu Dhabi.

"The question is whether this is the end of the crisis," Dr. al-Suwaidi says. "I doubt that, because the underlying principles are at odds: American policy is to get rid of Saddam, and Saddam will continue to make mistakes."

Still, al-Suwaidi and other area analysts question whether the scale of the US military buildup was too big for the occasion.

They say Iraq's brinkmanship has shown once again that Saddam is a master at playing a weak hand and knows how to manipulate his enemies and his friends.

"He has shown himself again as the victim of US tyranny and received the sympathy of everyone, including the government of Kuwait [which Iraq invaded in August 1990]," says Abdulreda Assiri, a political scientist at Kuwait University in Kuwait City.

"He has politicized the issues inside Iraq and gained the support of the Iraqi people so that they blame the US, not Saddam, for their misery," Dr. Assiri says.

UNSCOM chief Richard Butler, from Australia, has said the crisis was sparked when UN weapons inspectors came too close to finding some significant illegal weapons. The crisis, Assiri says, likely gave Iraq time to hide the evidence.

"I don't think he would have caused so much trouble unless he had something to hide," he says.

Kuwaiti leaders called for a diplomatic solution and made clear they would not support a military strike. But the Russian proposal, backed by France and China, is seen as a victory for Baghdad.

"Politically, Saddam plus Russia has won," Assiri says. "Even governments that were totally pro-US a few weeks and months ago are changing their attitude."

Israel

Arab leader after Arab leader has told the US that stalemate in the Arab-Israeli peace process has led to less support for the US position on Iraq.

But Reuven Hazan, a political scientist at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, does not expect the Gulf crisis to give a push to the Arab-Israeli peace process. He says that the Clinton administration's frustration with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may be more palpable, but it won't translate into more pressure on Israel.

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright may have been critical of Israel in Qatar last week, "but between that and taking a stake at pushing the Israeli government, there is a big, big difference. I think that there's no [US] interest in that right now," says Dr. Hazan.

The reason? US politics. With the 2000 presidential race near, the Clinton administration may not want to go hard on Jerusalem and damage Vice President Al Gore's chances of success with Jewish US voters.

In addition, the latest US-Iraq standoff and its apparent denouement shows how much the politics of the region have changed: Saddam did not threaten Israel in an attempt to break Arab support.

* Contributing to this report were Ilene R. Prusher, Peter Ford, Scott Peterson, Jonathan S. Landay, and Ann Scott Tyson.

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