Iraq has again played its cat and mouse game - as nasty and crazy and worrying as ever. But once more it seems to have tapered off, as it has half a dozen times in the past, under Western military blows or the threat of attack. President Saddam Hussein is obviously a compulsive gambler, and this latest test of Western resolve, in the face of previous failures, suggests that he will keep trying.
Saddam wants to derail the United Nations Security Council's Resolution 687, which set cease-fire terms after his defeat in the 1991 Gulf war. The core of 687 is an elaborate, intrusive mechanism to destroy Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and to ensure that they not be replaced for the indefinite future. The cease-fire left Iraq its sovereignty under Saddam's regime, because Turkey and the Arab Gulf states feared a vacuum. But Iraq had to accept severe limitations. To rigorous arms control by UNSCOM, a Special Commission of the Security Council, the Desert Storm allies added no-fly zones in large areas of northern and southern Iraq to protect the Kurdish and Shiite communities.
Over the past five years, however, Saddam has promised compliance with all measures while trying to frustrate every one. There is much reason to believe that he has used the wiggle room of sovereignty to plan and prepare for biological, chemical, and nuclear rearmament.
The March episode
The most recent episode began in March when Iraq delayed UNSCOM access to several facilities of the weapons program. They included a ministry and buildings of the Republican Guard and the presidential special guard, where sensitive documents and items demanded by UNSCOM were thought to be hidden. The Security Council in New York reemphasized its demand for "immediate, unconditional, and unrestricted" access. When the doors were finally opened, nothing was found. The suspect materials were perhaps removed. A few weeks later, Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz denounced inspection of ministries and security installations as "intolerable provocations." No further such inspections would be permitted, he said.
In mid-June, UNSCOM tried again. For the first time, its inspectors were denied entrance altogether. The Security Council at once objected, but a day later inspectors were barred from two more bases, and the Council sent UNSCOM's chief, Rolf Ekeus of Sweden, to Baghdad to find out what was going on. Saddam was clearly defying cease-fire Resolution 687. If he were no longer only violating some provisions but breaking the treaty, the Security Council and the allies of Desert Storm faced a grim choice: forcing Iraq to comply or accepting Iraqi rearmament and the revival of Baghdad's sinister influence in the Gulf.
Saddam's bogus promises
Promising, as he now has again, a "full, final, and complete disclosure" of his arms program before 1991 - embracing nuclear, radiological, chemical, and biological weapons carried by long-range missiles and artillery - he has stonewalled, dissembled, and been proven a liar. Having piously denied ever producing biological weapons, he was forced to admit stockpiling tens of thousands of liters of toxins like anthrax and botulism. Their subsequent alleged destruction, incidentally, has not been proved. They may be hidden.
Deprived by the victors of income from oil fields only slightly smaller than those of Saudi Arabia, he has spent billions of concealed dollars as well as money earned smuggling out oil, dates, and antiquities, to buy parts for new, longer-range missiles
Meanwhile, Iraq was using the growing poverty of its people, malnutrition, and a shortage of medicines to turn world opinion against the embargo. When this year he was given permission to sell $1 billion worth of oil every three months for humanitarian relief, his agents were quickly on the phone offering deals for industrial goods from abroad. The road from Amman to Baghdad is full of salesmen. Several Security Council members have expressed a reluctance to resort to punitive action.
Saddam Hussein is a miscalculator. Had he not chosen to invade Kuwait in 1990 he would today have the Arabian peninsula in his hands. It is not certain that he has really learned his lesson. Iraqi fighter planes probing the no-fly zones have been shot down. The US Air Force, sometimes together with the British and French, has attacked missile batteries and radar stations; Tomahawk missiles hit an industrial complex near Baghdad when Iraq refused to guarantee the safety of UN inspectors and wrecked Iraqi intelligence headquarters in the capital for plotting to assassinate former President George Bush on a visit to Kuwait.
Now it appears that Saddam Hussein, having marched up the hill, has marched down again. The world community has called his bluff, as it did in October 1994 when he moved divisions southward in the direction of Kuwait. But there is no reason to think that Saddam has changed his spots. He is likely to try again, exploiting the divergent economic interests of the Desert Storm coalition to maneuver for his basic aim of regional domination.
* Richard C. Hottelet, a longtime foreign correspondent for CBS, writes on world affairs.