WITH a promise to protect Shiite rebels in southern Iraq with American and allied air power, the Bush administration has taken a major step in what seems a new "get tougher" policy with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
It is a move that some Middle Eastern experts in the United States applaud, given Saddam's continued pursuit of Shiite redoubts. "They should have done this long ago," says Laurie Mylroie, a fellow in Arab politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
But others worry that the United States is now encouraging a three-way split of Iraqi territory and the establishment of a separate Shiite nation.
That is something Saudi Arabia has long worried about, on grounds the new country could become a tool of Iran.
"What is troubling about all this is, you don't know where it will lead," says Michael Hudson, a professor of Arab studies at Georgetown University.
The pattern of US-Iraqi interplay has been repetitious of late: First, a crisis. Then a fizzle. On
Aug. 17 a team of United Nations arms inspectors finished work in Iraq without incident, though US officials had threatened air strikes if the inspectors were denied access to key buildings.
The US proposal for military action to protect Shiites could ratchet up a crisis again. In the immediate aftermath of the Gulf war, the US had banned all flights by Iraqi fixed-wing planes over the southern Shiite zone. Such flights were allowed to resume a few months later. In recent months Iraq has used planes and helicopters to strafe Shiite villages, according to US ambassador to the UN Edward Perkins.
As of this writing no US protection plan had been officially announced, though administration officials were understood to be consulting on the plan with Gulf-war allies. It is not clear whether the US would allow Iraqi ground forces to operate in the Shiite southern marshlands.
The move is perhaps a tacit admission that Saddam is unlikely to be toppled by a coup in Baghdad anytime soon. US officials claim that it is not aimed at splitting the country. "We are not interested in a new capital for Iraq in northern Iraq or in a new capital for Iraq in southern Iraq. We are interested in a new government in Baghdad for all of Iraq," said Deputy Assistant Secretary of State David Mack on Aug 17.
The timing of the move around the Republican convention has raised inevitable comments about possible political motives of President Bush. "It would be extremely tempting to try and do something in Iraq that will reignite the kind of popularity Bush won" in Desert Storm, says Michael Hudson.
But others claim that Saddam Hussein remains a geniune geo-strategic problem for the US and its allies that must be dealt with. He retains the largest army in the Gulf. If the world's attention to him wanders he may yet win the long-term Gulf war. "He's a loser so long as the noose is tight," says Ambassador Walter Cutler, a former US envoy to Saudi Arabia.