DESPITE the danger of another Mideast war posed by the sudden build-up of Iraqi forces along the border with Kuwait, this latest brinksmanship by Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein appears to be less aimed at military conquest than at ending a crippling embargo and his own domestic plight.
``I wouldn't read too much into the troop movements,'' says Victor Le Vine, an expert on the Arab world and consultant to the State Department who teaches at Washington University in St. Louis. ``I don't think Saddam would be foolish enough to cross the border into Kuwait like he did in 1990. He's just attempting to create some jitters to put pressure on the UN to lift the embargo.''
The embargo, imposed by the United Nations on Iraq after it invaded Kuwait, deprives the Arab nation of its main source of income by blocking its oil exports. Iraqi leaders say the crisis, which began last week when Saddam began amassing troops near the Kuwaiti border, will end when the sanctions are lifted. In the meantime, say diplomatic analysts, the military build-up is useful to Saddam as a way to possibly draw support for ending the embargo.
Iraq's build-up of both troops and tanks has been answered by the US with a mobilization of soldiers, ships, planes, and Patriot antimissile systems.
The timing, if not the logic, of Saddam's threatening moves has perplexed many diplomatic observers. Iraq was expected to get a pat on the back this week, when the UN Security Council reviews whether it has cooperated with UN efforts to monitor the elimination of its weapons of mass destruction.
A favorable report would have increased pressure from at least two of the Security Council's five permanent members, France and Russia, to ease the sanctions. But according to the most prevalent theory, Saddam may have concluded that no amount of cooperation would convince the US to go along so long as he retains power and so long as Iraq refuses to recognize Kuwait's independence and borders, as required by the UN.
He has thus resorted to bluster, according to the theory, to scare the Security Council into lifting the economic sanctions that have led to food shortages, rationing, high inflation, and, reportedly, to growing discontent with Saddam's rule at home.
If Saddam has decided that the time is ripe for a bluff because of US's military engagement in Haiti, he is mistaken, US officials gravely warn.
Responding to the Iraqi build-up, the US has marshaled what Defense Secretary William Perry described Sunday as a ``formidable military force'' that would ``soundly'' defeat any Iraqi troops that enter Kuwait.
Some 36,000 US ground troops are in or being dispatched to the Gulf region this week. They are being supplemented by squadrons of attack and AWACS surveillance aircraft and Tomahawk cruise missiles that could be launched from ships in the Gulf against targets throughout Iraq, including Baghdad. Up to 15,000 more US soldiers have been placed on alert.
Behind the military preparations have been a chorus of statements from senior US officials from President Clinton on down warning Saddam of the consequences of another move against Kuwait.
The failure of the Bush administration to issue such warnings in 1990 may have led Saddam to believe that he could invade Kuwait with impunity. And many experts criticize former President Bush for not more thoroughly destroying Iraq's military capability.
``We are not going to allow the mistakes of the past to be repeated,'' White House chief of staff Leon Panetta told NBC's ``Meet the Press'' on Sunday.
On a separate track, administration officials have been reassembling the anti-Iraq coalition pieced together by Bush in 1991. Now, as then, at least token support from Arab states such as Egypt would be an important precondition to any US military action, even against a pariah state like Iraq. Unilateral action would anger public opinion in the Arab world, which is sympathetic to Saddam's argument that the sanctions should be lifted, and could thus throw the developing Middle East peace process off track.
The estimated 80,000 Iraqi troops near or en route to the Kuwaiti border are less than the 100,000 he unleashed in his 1990 invasion of Kuwait but are more than enough to overwhelm the 15,000 Kuwaiti troops that were rushed to northern Kuwait over the weekend.
SINCE Saddam has launched two improbable wars since 1980 (against Iran, then Kuwait), military experts are reluctant to rule out the possibility that he is seriously contemplating a third. Pentagon officials say the pattern of the current build-up is similar to the one that preceded the 1990 invasion. Saddam's army, meanwhile, is far stronger than it was at the end of the Gulf war.
But most military analysts are convinced that a new Gulf war would be as damaging for Iraq as the last one, especially since Iraqi troops, tanks, and artillery would be just as vulnerable to US air power.
``Saddam can't move a jeep without the US knowing where it's going,'' says Dr. La Vine.
Under the terms of UN Security Council Resolution 687, the trade embargo can be lifted once the Council is satisfied that Iraq is cooperating with the efforts of a UN commission to dismantle the country's nuclear program. Iraq warned Saturday that it would suspend its cooperation if the ban on oil exports is not lifted. That could mean that Iraq will interfere with elaborate equipment and procedures now set up to monitor Iraqi arms plants.