AT this stage in the Persian Gulf, Saddam Hussein of Iraq is clearly playing for time in a war of nerves. He has tipped his hand in a remarkable way. Reliable sources say he is sending large numbers of Iraqis from the Basra area to settle in Kuwait. They are physically indistinguishable from Kuwaitis, from the same ethnic stock, with family ties and speaking the same Arabic. Saddam's claim to Kuwait rests on the fact that under the Ottoman empire what is now Kuwait was part of Basra province.
Moving these settlers presents no difficulty. Hundreds of thousands of Kuwaitis and foreigners have fled the country since Iraq's invasion Aug. 2. Their abandoned homes are now being taken over. Saddam Hussein has offered to hold a referendum in Kuwait to legitimize his annexation. The thousands of new ``Kuwaitis'' could be relied upon to vote the right way.
Saddam may indeed feel that time is on his side. He faces a very broad coalition. It has worked together remarkably well in the first month of the crisis. But as the initial drama of danger and confrontation shades off into stalemate, some who rallied so readily behind the UN Security Council may have second thoughts. There is no question of the Bush administration's determination, and it has the support of Congress. But the expense is enormous and the enterprise open-ended.
Saddam Hussein hollers bloody murder but has not fired a shot at the ``aggressors.'' His isolation of foreign embassies in Kuwait and victimization of foreign hostages is outrageous but so far he has not shed blood. He could, of course, do so. And he has the armor, rockets, bombers, and poison gas to attack. But in the face of the power arrayed against him, he seems to prefer sitting.
The United States, effectively the leader of the coalition, its finances now in even worse shape, has not seen rich allies like Japan and Germany, whose industrial societies are at risk, rushing in to share the burden. Military morale is high, but families are separated and reservists' lives disrupted. At home, there are questions whether a goal of ``cheap oil'' justifies such a commitment and whether Americans should ``die for Kuwait.'' In the desert, troops are asking why they can't get the job done - whatever it is - and go home. Israel, not without influence in the United States, urges an American strike at Iraq.
The Arab states are divided between defiance and appeasement of Saddam, who keeps them under pressure in his pose as champion of the Arab masses. Moscow, which joined in five progressively stronger Security Council resolutions, now complains that the US military build-up may become a permanent ``explosive'' presence in the Gulf. The Soviet Union is a neighbor of Iraq and Iran and has its own policy concerns. Smaller nations are saying more insistently that the UN's economic embargo and the high price of oil causes them severe hardship.
Saddam Hussein may hope that time will crack the coalition and the embargo, but the war of nerves cuts both ways. Iraq is feeling the blockade more and more. Its economy was a mess to start with. Agriculture is run down. Even the production of dates, now being touted as a staple food, is less than a third of what it was in 1976. Unable to sell its oil, Iraq has practically no income and no credit. Some experts see severe food shortages within two or three months.
Much depends on making the Iraqi people see that the cause of their suffering is Saddam Hussein. After dragging them into a long, costly, and fruitless war against Iran, his megalomania has now mobilized the world against Iraq. This message, hammered home from all sides in broadcasts to the population and to the radio-equipped tanks on the desert front, may turn the pressure against Saddam. According to Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz, Saddam Hussein has faced nine attempts on his life. He might not survive a tenth.
On the other hand, impatience could disrupt the coalition. In particular, a rush to break the stalemate by military action would play into Saddam's hands, make him the victim, and let time really work for him.