PRESIDENT Saddam Hussein of Iraq, piloting his rickety regime, has been switching the seat belt sign on and off. It could be a very rough flight - even a crash - for all concerned, including the United States.
Saddam had demanded removal by Aug. 31 of economic sanctions imposed on Iraq after his invasion and looting of Kuwait. Otherwise, Iraq would cease cooperation with the United Nations.
Now, suddenly, he has cancelled the ultimatum and says he will provide the information about Iraq's huge prewar production of weapons of mass destruction, which the UN Security Council requires to remove the embargo. This has happened before and the reason given this time inspires little confidence. It is that Hussein Kamel, Saddam's recently defected son-in-law, who ran the weapons operation, had withheld the facts from the boss and the government, preventing disclosure.
The threat to "cease cooperation" if sanctions are not lifted still hangs menacingly in the air. It would mean immobilizing or expelling UNSCOM, the UN Special Commission created by the UN Security Council in 1991 to ferret out nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons as well as long- range missiles and to destroy them. Together with the International Atomic Energy Agency, UNSCOM is also charged with preventing Iraq from making such weapons or importing them, their parts, and precursor chemicals. Until all is assured beyond doubt, Iraq is to remain under tight control.
For more than four years, Saddam has struggled to escape these bonds. He has refused a UN offer to let him sell oil for the food and medicines his people badly need and has exploited their misery to gain sympathy for Iraq and end sanctions. He has concealed evidence of his weapons programs only to be found out again and again. When deception and open violence failed to block UNSCOM's inspectors, he pretended full cooperation. But at each turn he has met his nemesis, the head of UNSCOM, Ambassador Rolf Ekeus of Sweden.
Actually, Mr. Ekeus is an unlikely instrument of retribution. Mild mannered and soft-spoken, he avoids confrontation, waving off threats and vituperation flung at him by the controlled Iraqi press. He is open to facts but detests fraud, which he pursues with the finesse of a Sherlock Holmes. Most recently, he built a case to prove that Iraq had conducted a huge biological warfare program. He put the elements together, pointing to omissions, lies, and inconsistencies against a framework of painstakingly assembled economic and weapons intelligence. For four years, Baghdad had indignantly denied everything but this summer was compelled to admit its actions.
Once more, Saddam sought refuge in "total disclosure," as demanded by UN resolutions. Again, he declared that Iraq had met all the conditions for lifting sanctions. Ekeus, almost regretfully, pointed to this latest explanation's gaping holes and inadequacies. Almost regretfully, because Saddam signaled privately and emphatically that he was running out of patience.
Saddam's impatience is to be taken seriously. It led to the invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and an attempt to assassinate former President George Bush on a visit to Kuwait in 1993, as well as provocations against UN inspectors and US patrol planes. In 1994, Saddam showed his displeasure with the UN's failure to rescind the sanctions by sending a large military force toward the Kuwaiti border. Each move brought a strong rebuff, and Washington feels that another emergency would also call for a military response.
Should Saddam, flaunting the sovereignty that the victors of Desert Storm left him, ever shut down UNSCOM's elaborate monitoring and verification network and cancel its import-surveillance program, he would present a lethal challenge. Iraq's weapons of mass destruction are gone, but it is far and away technologically the most advanced Arab country. Not destroyed is the technical and managerial skill to replace them.
Despite dramatic defections in his family and mutinies among tribal adherents, Saddam - a brutal man of violent impulse - is still calling the shots. Quietly, the US has expanded military cooperation with the Gulf states and Jordan, including training and basing agreements, pre-positioning equipment, and joint exercises. A new Fifth Fleet in the area ensures almost instant engagement if necessary.
Once more Saddam has offered to "tell all." But even if he does, including the still-secret foreign suppliers and financiers of raw materials and special-weapons equipment, Washington now demands information on missing Kuwaiti prisoners and stolen equipment. It insists further that Baghdad end its violation of human rights, specifically against the Kurds in the north and the Shiite in the south.
These added conditions could split the Security Council, but Washington seems willing to pay the political price of vetoing the lifting of sanctions. On the other hand, Saddam might decide not to kick over the table. However, he is a gambler with, as past performance shows, terrible judgment. The seat belt sign is on.