As Anti-Iraq Coalition Frays, US Pushes for Containment

WITH the immediate threat of an Iraqi invasion into Kuwait now contained, Bill Clinton can claim a much needed foreign policy success.

But he now faces a more difficult challenge: defining new measures that are strong enough to deter Iraqi aggression in the future but not so strong that they jeopardize the fragile unity of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.

``The simple part of responding to Saddam's provocation is over,'' says Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

``We're now in a more complicated period in terms of how you deal with your allies and whether you rachet up containment to a more aggressive state - in other words, how you fashion a political response to what is, in essence, a political problem.''

The so-called ``perm five'' were the principal architects of a containment strategy based on sanctions and other punitive measures pieced together after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990.

But with large economic interests now at stake in Iraq, France and Russia are seeking to ease the pressure on the pariah Arab state.

A weakening of the coalition could create opportunities for Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, diplomatic analysts say.

It could also force difficult choices on the United States, which may have to opt for a greater degree of unilateralism in sustaining a hard line against Iraq.

UN jockeying

In a week of intense diplomatic jockeying at the UN, the US has sought to keep the issue of easing sanctions against Iraq on the back burner while focusing on the more pressing question of resolving - and preventing a repetition of - the current crisis.

``We have to devise some kind of deterrent formula that is sufficiently credible that this can't happen again,'' says Phebe Marr, a senior fellow at the National Defense University in Washington.

The formula is partly embedded in a UN resolution approved late Saturday that calls on Iraq to move its troops back from the Kuwait border to their original positions and prohibits the movement of elite Republican Guard divisions south of the 32nd parallel.

``The assumption is that if you restrict the freedom of the Republican Guards you restrict Iraq's offensive potential,'' says Michael Eisenstadt, a military affairs fellow at the Washington Institute.

The resolution also warns Iraq against using its military forces in a ``provocative'' manner against its neighbors and UN operations in Iraq.

Defense Secretary William Perry warned last week that the US would take military action with or without a UN resolution if the Guard divisions are not withdrawn from the Kuwait border.

Military experts say Iraq's heavily armored divisions can be monitored effectively since the equipment they use, including T-72 tanks and self-propelled artillery, has unique ``signatures'' that can easily be detected by aerial reconnaissance flights.

To monitor - and if necessary disrupt - troop movements south of the 32nd parallel, the US will need to station additional aircraft in the Gulf. To achieve more flexible deterrence, the US is also seeking to preposition more arms and equipment in the Gulf region.

To ease or not to ease

Once Iraqi troops have returned to their original positions, the more divisive issue of easing sanctions against Iraq is certain to be raised in the Security Council.

Russia is pressing the UN to ease pressure on Iraq in return for Saddam's explicit recognition of Kuwait and its borders. The plan would allow Iraq to resume oil exports, which means that it could resume payment on $7 billion in debts to Russia for arms purchased during the Iran-Iraq war.

France, which is in line for lucrative contracts to develop Iraq's oil industry, is also eager to relax sanctions.

But US officials say they are not interested in lifting sanctions until they are convinced that Saddam intends to live in peace with his neighbors. If the sanctions are retained, Saddam's downfall - the implicit objective of US policy - is likely to be hastened.

While US officials believe there is no choice but to hold the line on sanctions, they are aware of the risks of going it alone and exposing the divisions among the five permanent Security Council members, also including Britain and China, on how to deal with Iraq.

``Unilateralism will cause the split to increase and naturally give Saddam succor,'' says Phebe Marr.

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