The Other Mideast Priority

While a suicide bomber hit Israel last week, and Israel then hit Palestinians with US-made F-16 jets, the White House was busy trying to get refrigerators into Iraq.

President Bush wants to ease the economic sanctions against Iraq to increase the flow of civilian goods and make life more bearable for Iraqis. This United States request to the United Nations reflects Mr. Bush's priority of dealing with foreign matters of direct American interest, such as Saddam Hussein's threat to the Middle East and US-bound oil reserves.

So while Mr. Bush merely reacts to Israel-Palestinian violence, he's acting on the latent danger in Iraq.

But first, of course, both Mr. Hussein and the UN Security Council must agree to the new US-British plan, which would ease sanctions if Hussein allows a resumption of UN inspections of suspected projects to build weapons of mass destruction.

Secretary of State Colin Powell long has advocated changing the sanctions regime. His goals - and they're worthwhile ones - are (1) to rebuild the European and Middle Eastern alliance that drove Hussein out of Kuwait in 1991, and (2) to get out from under the charge that the US, not Hussein, is perpetuating sanctions that hurt innocent Iraqi civilians.

His strategy also counters American critics who favor a get-tougher strategy with Iraq, including more support for Iraqi opposition groups that think they can topple Hussein. Hopes for that strategy are far-fetched. Hussein's security apparatus appears to be as tightly in control as ever.

Mr. Powell's plan also faces problems in getting key neighboring countries - Jordan, Syria, and Turkey - to go along with tightened controls over commerce with Iraq, including oil exports. And then Security Council permanent members France, Russia, and China will likely bargain hard for even fewer restrictions on trade with Iraq.

Still, revising sanctions is the best among imperfect options on Iraq, whose leader is a main reason the Middle East remains such a volatile neighborhood for Israel. Keeping a lid on Hussein's military aspirations, while taking some of the pressures off average Iraqis, is the logical path, bumpy as it's likely to be.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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