Why Saddam Again Risks All

Iraq's calculating dictator is weighing at least five factors

Saddam Hussein is back. In yet another potential showdown with the US, Iraq has barred Americans from working on the UN's weapons inspection team. The inspectors were sent to Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War to make sure it got rid of weapons of mass destruction.

Saddam's move is quite bold for a dictator who suffered a massive military defeat in 1991, still faces daunting US power, remains on the economic ropes, and could benefit greatly from the lifting of UN economic sanctions. Like many others, the head of the UN inspection team in Iraq, Richard Butler, is "mystified as to why Iraq has done this."

How can we explain Iraq's puzzling behavior? Several explanations seem plausible, especially when considered together.

Political problems

First, Saddam appears weaker politically but stronger militarily. Saddam has experienced serious political problems in the past two years. In March 1995 he faced a coup attempt by the Albunimr tribe of the Dulaym clan, the first such attempt from within his traditional Sunni Muslim power base. Later, in August of that year, his sons-in-law defected to Jordan, signaling problems in his inner circle. In August 1996 Saddam put two family members under house arrest, faced more defections by military officers, and, reportedly, narrowly escaped an assassination attempt. He has responded to ongoing internal threats with apparently successful purges. But he cannot discount his adversaries.

On the military front, Iraqi pilots have in recent months repeatedly challenged the no-fly zone below the 33rd parallel, enforced by French, British, and US aircraft. US F-16 pilots have told me that Iraqi jets engage them and attempt to seduce them into dangerous Iraqi airspace, only to disengage when US aircraft lock in on them. The Iraqi pilots have consistently avoided being shot down by US aircraft.

Moreover, Saddam has reconstituted many of his critical armed divisions and may very well possess deliverable biological and chemical weapons. While seriously outmatched by the US, Iraq remains the strongest country in the Gulf militarily. Saddam's challenge to Washington suggests that he feels it is time to test the waters again with a minor military engagement.

Second, Iraq has been trying to split the US-led coalition - in particular, the US, Russia, and France. The latter two historically have been Iraq's No. 1 and 2 arms suppliers. Both would profit greatly if UN sanctions were lifted against Iraq.

Not surprisingly, Russia and France have been inclined to argue Saddam's case. Indeed, the Security Council was split over a US-British resolution in early October that threatened to ban Iraqi military and intelligence officers from traveling abroad. Russia and France abstained.

Third, in October the UN disarmament commission accused Iraq of withholding information on its weapons programs. More recently, Mr. Butler surmised that Saddam is developing a new biological weapon.

Quite possibly he seeks to keep it hidden from increasingly effective American inspectors. Rather than forgo these capabilities near term, or longer term, Saddam may have chosen to risk a confrontation that can divert attention from domestic economic ills, keep his army busy (and thus unable to challenge him), and possibly split France, Russia, and the US.

American espionage?

Fourth, Iraq may indeed believe that US inspectors are engaged in espionage. While this is unlikely since this mission is UN-led, that is beside the point. In a region rife with conspiracy theories, US espionage is a notion many Arabs would accept gladly.

Fifth, this episode smacks of PR Saddam-style. In Iraqi newspapers and at the UN, he is painting the US as an imperialist state choking Iraq and killing its children by depriving them of economic goods. Iraq's UN ambassador, Nizar Hamdoon, recently delivered a letter to the Security Council stating that Iraq's action was "out of desperation" at the seven-year-old sanctions and "the tragic situation of the Iraqi people." This may reflect his belief, but it can also help taint Washington and split the coalition.

So far, Saddam's gamble does not appear to be paying off. Quite the contrary, he once again has helped unite the US-led coalition. But the saga that began in earnest in August 1990 with the invasion of Kuwait continues, with no clear end in sight.

* Steve Yetiv is associate director of graduate programs in international studies at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va.

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