Inspectors due Monday, Hussein inspects remaining trump cards

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Saddam Hussein has backed down only because he came to fear a devastating American attack. Forgoing weapons of mass destruction is not too high a price to pay to remain in power.

UN Security Council resolution 1441 of Nov. 8 served him an ultimatum - "a final opportunity" to eliminate its nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons and the long-range missiles to deliver them - but does not mention regime change.

The resolution gives inspectors the right to go anywhere at any time and warns Iraq it will face "serious consequences" if it fails to cooperate. It lets Mr. Hussein survive to plot another day.

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The Iraqi dictator has a weak hand. The UN inspectors are assembling - the first advance team is due to arrive in Baghdad Monday and actual inspections are scheduled to begin Nov. 27. The American threat remains undiminished.

But Hussein has trump cards that he has played in the past. He faces no effective Iraqi opposition inside or outside the country. His military and security forces are intact. He can continue to provide his people with food and medicine by selling as much oil as he pleases under the UN's oil-for-food program.

Politically, nothing essential has changed. The new, tough UN resolution affirms Iraq's sovereignty and territorial integrity. As in 1991, there is general acceptance of the status quo - even by the United States - and no move to break up Iraq or to remove its president. The Kurdish north wants autonomy within Iraq, not independence that could lead to endless trouble with Turkey and Iran.

Saddam Hussein can live indefinitely while the UN monitors and verifies that he has no forbidden weapons programs.

He can concentrate on the diplomatic job of ending all the economic sanctions imposed in 1991 as a condition of the Desert Storm cease-fire and give Iraqis the prospect of a much better life. This tack already finds much favor abroad. Russia and France would be paid the billions of dollars Iraq owes them for past services. Iraq's credit is excellent. It has the second-largest pool of proven oil reserves on earth. Big foreign oil companies are lusting to be engaged in restoring and marketing Iraq's dilapidated oil production.

It is possible that Saddam Hussein, over time, will again try to develop chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. Without them he is not the man who wanted to control the Arabian peninsula and its oil, vital for industrial Europe and Japan.

Hussein may count on the notorious fickleness of international politics. A world community that shows donor fatigue and compassion fatigue may also develop inspection fatigue.

It is also possible that he might think of achieving his goal without regaining proscribed armaments. Iraq is the strongest, most productive society in the Arab world. The brains are still there. At age 65, Hussein is the most dynamic figure in the Arab world. He could concentrate on bringing down the peninsula governments. Long popular with the "street," he could be the incendiary leader of anti-American, anti-Western, antiestablishment rage, harping on the Israeli-Palestinian struggle.

In the 1970s, Hussein instigated open rebellion - the Dhofar Liberation Front in Oman - only to drop it to gain the support of Arab governments when he prepared in 1980 to invade Iran.

What if he were to deliver his great competitor, Osama bin Laden?

Richard C. Hottelet was a longtime CBS correspondent.

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