Iraq's Front-Line Shift

WITH Saddam Hussein's troops no longer massing along the Kuwaiti border, it seems the front lines of the Iraqi dispute have shifted to the UN Security Council, where the fight is over whether or how to lift the 1990 sanctions on Iraq. The Russians are pressing the US to deal with the Iraqi dictator, and they are probing certain soft spots among members of the former US-led Gulf war coalition.

One thing is clear: President Clinton cannot inch toward lifting sanctions on Iraq prior to the November elections. Saddam's border threat, in fact, helps the president on the domestic political front by giving him a no-lose, get-tough issue to show the Stars and Stripes over.

Still, once the elections are over, the US will have to deal with Iraq. Whether or not Saddam intended his troop movements to create a genuine dispute in the UN, they have. The Iraqi dictator wants an end to the embargo that has harmed his economy and his people, and he no doubt would also like to rebuild militarily.

After having made a significant investment in keeping the Gulf region stable and the oil lines secure, the United States, the de facto guarantor of Gulf security, had to show it could respond to Saddam's threat. It does not want Iraqi aggression to reassert itself. Washington has taken a hands-off attitude toward Iraq: Baghdad has been difficult to deal with, and Saddam is no favorite of the US public. In that standoff, the Russians have found they can enter the middle ground and play a game in the Security Council. It seems an exploitive game; perhaps patience will show otherwise. Most Security Council members seem not to believe Saddam really intended to attack Kuwait (he may not have). These and many other nations will benefit economically from renewed relations with Iraq.

This is particularly true for the Russians. They have oil and military contracts with Iraq. Also, since Moscow shows an interest in sending ``peacekeeping'' troops into its own neighboring countries, it may prefer that UN members (including Saddam) not get too excit-ed about Kuwait. Moscow cannot offer any security in the Gulf. But it can take a ``middle'' position in the UN on behalf of the immediate self-interest of China, France, Turkey, and others.

Washington should not ``trust'' Saddam, as the Russians irresponsibly imply. But it should, after the elections, explore new options more vigorously. The questions are familiar: How long would it take to dislodge Saddam by the embargo? Who replaces him? What is the cost both to the Iraqi people and the US image abroad of that strategy?

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