WASHINGTON — Iraqi President Saddam Hussein appears to be testing US mettle just as the Clinton administration comes to a close and America occupies itself with presidential elections.
In recent weeks, Saddam has threatened two US allies - Kuwait and Saudi Arabia - and tried to urge other oil-producing countries not to help the US and Europe with their soaring fuel costs.
Those actions have put US officials in a bind - because they don't want a military engagement so late in President Clinton's term and they don't want Iraq to play a role in the tight election between Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush.
"The National Security Council and the central command have spent a lot of time worrying about this," says a source familiar with US-Iraq policy.
The sense in Washington that Saddam is up to something has been growing since early August, when the Iraqi military held exercises to commemorate the 10-year anniversary of its invasion of Kuwait. Early this week Secretary of Defense William Cohen said US forces are ready to act if Iraq takes "any kind of aggressive action."
In the past, Iraq has used transition periods in Washington as a time to provoke, says Patrick Clawson, an expert on Iraq at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
On Mr. Clinton's first day in office in 1993, for example, the US bombed Iraq. "He's trying to test the US in the last few months of the presidency," says Mr. Clawson. "We're not yet sure what form this will take."
One possibility is that Saddam is thumping his chest in an attempt to get the international community to ease trade sanctions, analysts say. The sanctions prohibit shipments of most goods to Iraq, with the exception of essential food and medicine.
Already Iraq has heightened tension in the Gulf region by accusing Kuwait of stealing their oil (a charge that Kuwait denies). Similar threats preceded the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait a decade ago.
Also, two weeks ago, an Iraqi military plane reportedly violated Saudi Arabia's air space, in what some US officials saw as an effort to roil the US during the United Nations' Millennial Summit.
"[Saddam's] engaged in quite a bit of saber rattling as of late," says Lt. Col. Dave Lapan, a Pentagon spokesman.
But Iraq probably has the potential to do the most damage to the US through its oil production. In recent comments printed in the Iraqi state-controlled press, Saddam has urged OPEC members not to kowtow to the US by increasing oil production. He said the US wants "the price of oil to be suitable for it and not for others."
Even if Iraq alone closed its valves, the oil-sensitive US economy would suffer.
For the past decade, the US has struggled with Saddam - and with how best to achieve their stated goal of removing him from office. The Clinton policy of late has been to try to contain him and prevent him from making weapons of mass destruction.
Yet the US is trying to do so with a sanctions and military regimen that was designed for other means: to force Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait and allow weapons inspectors into their country.
"We're using old tools," says Jon Alterman of the US Institute of Peace in Washington. "Saddam has learned in the past 10 years how to respond to US policy."
The US and Britain have been bombing Iraq regularly - most recently last Thursday, in response to Iraqi anti-aircraft artillery fire against coalition aircraft patrolling a "no-fly" zone over southern Iraq.
The air mission has been expensive. It costs about $2 billion a year and occupies 20,000 soldiers, 200 aircraft, and 25 ships. Yet it has not loosened Saddam's grip on power, and is being questioned by US lawmakers.
"It appears that the current policy is a failure," said Sen. Strom Thurmond (R) of South Carolina at a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee Tuesday.
One new measure US officials are trying, in an effort to ratchet up pressure on the Iraqi regime, is to call for the formation of a war crimes tribunal to try Saddam and his inner circle.
"It is beyond any possible doubt that Saddam Hussein and the top leadership around him have brutally and systematically committed war crimes and crimes against humanity for years," said David Scheffer, the US ambassador at large for war-crimes issues, at a press conference in Washington this week.
The US has also been giving money - about $8 million - to the Iraqi National Congress, a political coalition that is trying to topple Saddam.
But beyond Britain, Washington lacks enthusiastic international support in its crusade against the Iraqi leader. Baghdad claims that the US-led sanctions are leading to mass malnutrition and unusually high rates of infant mortality.
"Iraq does not even have the means to pose a threat to its neighbors," says Rania Masri, head of the Iraq Action Coalition, based in Raleigh, N.C.
Indeed, Pentagon officials say the Iraqi military is still wounded from the Gulf wars and has been further hobbled by steady bombing.
Carrot or stick?
Yet Washington has been unable to find the right combination of diplomacy and force to bring a new government to power in Iraq. The National Security Council does not want Iraq to become a major crisis, and for the moment seems unwilling to confront Baghdad.
Both presidential candidates have talked tough on the subject, but neither has specified how they would bring about change.
"It's a big, messy, ugly problem, and both [political parties] recognize that," says Mr. Alterman.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society