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Iraq cranks up charm offensive

Hussein apologizes to Kuwait, talks of political reform, and invites back some exiles.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 9, 2002



BAGHDAD, IRAQ

Mounting American pressure is being felt in Baghdad, causing Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to pick up the pace of a new charm offensive meant to undermine US war plans for Iraq.

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The distance Iraq is going to avoid war is evident in a host of steps that would have seemed impossible compromises just a few weeks ago - from total cooperation with United Nations weapons inspectors and talk of democratic reform, to an unprecedented but qualified presidential apology late Saturday over Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

Analysts say the moves are calculated to maximize chances for Mr. Hussein's survival while complicating US diplomatic efforts to forge an anti-Iraq coalition. But they also demonstrate how close Hussein's toes have been dragged toward the fire.

"Saddam is like a stripper, taking off one piece of clothing at a time," says a veteran Arab analyst who asked not to be identified.

"The problem is, he is getting down to his last one or two pieces, and will soon be naked."

The UN Security Council yesterday received a 11,807-page declaration billed by Baghdad as a "currently accurate, full, and complete" accounting of Iraq's past and present chemical, biological, missile, and nuclear-weapons programs.

Even as Iraqi officials were handing over this vast document, which has already drawn US skepticism, a letter from Hussein read on Iraqi TV apologized to the people of Kuwait. But the grudging statement also accused Kuwaiti rulers of "plotting hand-in-hand with foreign armies" to facilitate US occupation of Iraq.

"The heat is getting very, very close to Saddam," says Youssef Ibrahim, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in Washington. "But at the same time, he is twisting the diplomatic game and making it very difficult for the Bush administration - which by all accounts appears absolutely intent on attacking Iraq - to carry its plan out.

"The world community will have a hard time ignoring all these steps," he says, "the opening of the presidential palaces, the lack of Iraqi objections, the fact the inspectors keep saying we haven't found anything. All this is adding considerable weight against the American position."

As Iraq showed off the declaration in Baghdad, the head of the Iraqi National Monitoring Directorate, Lt. Gen. Hassam Mohamed Amin, said the US and Britain should be satisfied. "This should prevent any threat against Iraq - not only war," General Amin said. "If the US has the minimum level of fairness and braveness, it should accept this and say 'Yes, this is the truth.' "

While TV cameras focus on the declaration and Iraq's surprise apology for its brutal occupation of Kuwait, Hussein has taken a string of other steps to curry favor with his own people.

Talk has surfaced for the first time since the late 1980s that the ruling Baath Party will soon permit reforms and even other political parties into Iraq's uncompromising one-party system. Prisons were emptied of tens of thousands of prisoners in mid-October, shortly after Hussein claimed a unanimous landslide in a referendum on his rule from his 24 million subjects.

Some marginal opposition members in exile have been permitted to return. And since August, food rations have been given in two-month installments in an effort to forestall the kind of riots seen in the 1991 Gulf War.

"[Hussein] is trying to have a charm offensive," says Wamidh Omar Nadhmi, a political scientist at Baghdad University. "He's trying to get more support within Iraqi society, and he's trying to give a good impression about his regime - that it's not as black as it used to be."

Mr. Nadhmi says the steps may result only from the "threat of the American sword." Still, he adds, the possible democratic rejiggering, put on hold before the Gulf War, is long overdue, like the Kuwait "apology." But it may come "too late."

"I think the regime made an awful mistake by delaying political reforms - perhaps they didn't think the Americans would attack again," says Nadhmi. A delay in a US attack might give enough time to "transform the country into a more acceptable form of rulership."

Like most Iraqis, Nadhmi says there is little Iraq can do to stave off war. But he adds that the US risks damaging its war against Al Qaeda if it takes on Iraq.

Osama bin Laden has criticized UN sanctions on Iraq, which Iraqi officials and UN reports blame for the deaths of tens of thousands of Iraqi children, and for helping to impoverish the oil-rich nation. Mr. bin Laden has also assailed the presence of US troops in Saudi Arabia and unstinting US support for Israel.

"If [the US] really wants to put an end to terror, the massacre of Iraqi civilians was one reason for the terror inflicted upon innocent civilians of America," Nadhmi adds. "If a new slaughter is to take place in Iraq by an Anglo-American alliance, [the threat of] Mr. Osama bin Laden will be multiplied in the Middle East by something like 1,000."

Hussein's efforts to shore up his own support and confuse US diplomatic moves may have broader ramifications. "[Hussein] is contributing, inadvertently, to the widening of Al Qaeda's base," says the CFR's Ibrahim. "Al Qaeda is morphing now from a purely Muslim fundamentalist, narrow-minded religious organization, [to one] that is gathering among its ranks a lot of Arab secularists."

War with Iraq is also helping to energize attacks against US and Western interests.

"What Saddam is doing is erasing the fine line that has existed for 60 years in the Arab and Muslim world, that says: 'We don't like American policy, but the American people are something different,'" Ibrahim says.

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