The US missile strike on Iraq and the expansion of a no-fly zone raise the specter of a long-term confrontation with uncertain consequences for Mideast stability and President Clinton's reelection bid.
The biggest US military action against Iraq since the 1991 Gulf war was intended to punish President Saddam Hussein for an offensive against Kurdish rebels in a United Nations-designated safe area in northern Iraq. But Saddam, characteristically, is uncowed, vowing to no longer respect the no-fly zones enforced by US, British, and French planes.
Saddam's defiance, the threat of further US attacks, and the region's incendiary mix of complex political forces raise the possibility that the crisis could escalate at a time when Mr. Clinton is concentrating on his campaign for a second term.
It could also impact the US economy. Oil prices surged after the Sept. 3 attack, in which the US fired 27 cruise missiles at air-defense installations south of Baghdad. But analysts say Clinton had little choice but to act.
Strategically and economically, the president was compelled to reassert US power as the main guarantor of peace in the Middle East, the source of 55 percent of global petroleum supplies. At home, he needed to counter criticism from his Republican rival, Bob Dole, who accused Clinton of "weak leadership" for failing to confront Saddam sooner.
Clinton could turn the crisis to his advantage, analysts say, by demonstrating decisive leadership. He appeared to move quickly to do just that.
"We must make it clear that reckless acts have consequences or those acts will increase," he said hours after the strikes. "We must reduce Iraq's ability to strike out at its neighbors and we must increase America's ability to contain Iraq over the long run."
In using the terrain-hugging cruise missiles, Clinton selected a forceful response that reduced the possibility of major civilian casualties and avoided the potential election-year disaster of having US pilots captured or killed.
Yet the strike was more symbolic than strategic. Analysts say it would do little to hurt Iraq militarily. The question is whether it will deter Saddam from further belligerence.
"The administration really had little choice," says Robert Lieber, a professor of government and a Gulf expert at Georgetown University in Washington. "There are questions of timing and how extensive the response should be, whether to respond with cruise missiles or aircraft. But with the election campaign, the president could not afford to just sit still."
The crisis began late last week when Saddam sent tanks, artillery, and an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 elite Republican Guard troops to intervene in a power struggle between rival Kurdish rebel factions.
The Iraqis entered on the side of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and ousted from the northern town of Arbil, fighters of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz said the Iraqi force had withdrawn, but Clinton said there was no sign of a pullback.
Iraq asserted that its intervention was requested by the KDP after the collapse of US-sponsored peace talks and the PUK reportedly began receiving military supplies from Iraq's neighboring rival, Iran.
The assault came in defiance of US warnings to Iraq not to enter the region, which was declared a UN safe area after Saddam suppressed a Kurdish uprising after his Gulf war defeat.
US, British, and French aircraft have been enforcing a no-fly zone over the region and a second over southern Iraq to protect majority Shiite Muslims from Saddam's regime, which is dominated by members of the Sunni sect.
The Clinton administration is extending the southern no-fly zone from the 32nd to 33rd parallel, which runs 30 miles south of Baghdad, barring Iraqi flights from the entire southern half of the country.
In extending the zone, the US expanded the security net it has provided since the Gulf war to Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Defense Secretary William Perry said the cruise missiles were aimed at surface-to-air missile sites, radar installations, and command-and-control facilities in southern Iraq. He said by destroying the targets, allied aircraft could enforce the expanded no-fly zone, disrupting two Iraqi airfields.
The move reflects Pentagon concerns that Saddam has managed to rebuild his armed forces despite the pounding the country suffered in the Gulf war and an international oil embargo imposed against it. Perry said the US saw the "greatest threat" from Saddam in southern Iraq. Iraqi officials say at least five civilians were killed and 19 injured in the attack.
International reaction to the strike was mixed, with Britain, Germany, and Japan expressing support for Clinton's decision. France, which is Iraq's largest creditor and former main arms supplier, questioned the move in what analysts said reflected its desire to resume business ties with Baghdad. In Moscow, the government called for an immediate halt to military actions.
Politically, the latest brinkmanship with Iraq brings potential risks and rewards for Clinton at home. "Big Stick foreign policy usually meets with favorable public opinion, and Saddam Hussein is right out of central casting as far as international villains go," says one foreign policy analyst.
But the Mideast has a history of ensnaring US presidents. With the election still two months off, Saddam could make trouble for Clinton.
Protecting the Kurdish area by air is relatively easy, says John Steinbruner, a foreign policy expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "But air power would be insufficient to protect the Kurds from an aggressive assault. Then what?" he asks. "If Saddam isn't intimidated, he could drive this to the point where we would be unwilling to undertake an effective response."
While he sees the strike as "overtly political," he doesn't think Dole can make much of it. "Dole will have a hard time making any significant distinction between himself and Clinton on this issue."
*Staff writers Warren Richey and Kurt Shillinger contributed to this report.