Waiting Game in Iraq

IT'S approaching a year since Operation Desert Storm routed Saddam Hussein's legions. The military triumph has lost some of its initial luster, but the accomplishments remain: a free, if no more democratic, Kuwait; secure Saudi oil fields; and, not least, the snuffing out of Saddam's influence in the region.

The Iraqi dictator himself, however, still reigns in Baghdad. Saddam has tried to rally his people around rebuilding efforts, like repair of major bridges in Baghdad. During this week's "Army Day" address, Saddam extolled the glories of the "mother of all battles which, ironically, destroyed the bulk of the military hardware that was traditionally rolled out for the occasion.

Bluster aside, Saddam is far from secure. His reshuffling and purging of the upper echelons of the government and military indicates splintering within the regime. His security apparatus still functions, however. And more important, the Sunni Muslim minority that gives Saddam his power base sees little alternative to him. They were terrified at the prospect of the southern Shiites attaining power.

The Shiites themselves, after rising against Saddam last March, have been terrified into submission. Neither Iraq's Arab neighbors nor their Western allies supported the rebellion, though the Shiites were encouraged by US propaganda to expect such support. Saddam's revenge, once it became clear US forces wouldn't interfere, was swift and bloody.

The Kurds in the north were given allied protection; a buffer zone, off limits to Saddam's forces, remains in effect. But Iraqi troops have gradually been pushing the Kurdish guerrillas from their positions just below the buffer zone, and there's little doubt Saddam is waiting for the right moment to reclaim all of northern Iraq. The lightly armed Kurds can do little to resist Iraqi armor, and Kurdish civilians are primed to flee again to the mountains and to Iran.

The buffer zone in the north is likely to be extended, however, as is the international economic embargo of Iraq. The embargo, which prevents Iraq from restoring its oil-based economy, remains the biggest burden for Saddam and a primary tool for forcing change. It should stay in place - with exceptions for humanitarian need.

So far, Saddam has refused to allow UN-supervised oil sales to fund increased humanitarian relief for his people. He claims that would infringe sovereignty. More to the point, it might loosen his grip on Iraqis' lives.

Iraqis need to see a future beyond Saddam. The US and its allies should make it clear they'll help rebuild the country once a new government is in place.

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