Iraq Is Back

Just how many bounces does Eveready Bunny of trouble get?

Kosovo is safely tucked away without bombing, at least for the moment, and Iraq is back. One difference is that Milosevic threatens his own citizens; Saddam Hussein threatens the region and perhaps the world.

Just to recall what we are talking about: As a price for ending the war in 1991, Saddam Hussein agreed to file disclosure statements about weapons of mass destruction in his possession - weapons which the United Nations would then destroy. These statements proved to be mainly fictitious. In the past eight years UN inspectors have turned up germ warfare stockpiles, including enough anthrax and botulism toxin to kill everybody in the world, enough chemical weapons - such as nerve gas - to kill millions, and a nuclear program that needs only highly enriched uranium to fashion a Hiroshima-type bomb.

Last April, after UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan brokered the resolution of one crisis, President Clinton said that he had been ready to use military force and would do so in the event of "any further Iraqi transgressions." As though to avoid such a contingency, the administration several times vetoed plans for intrusive surprise inspections. In a face-off in August, the Clinton administration made no mention of using force.

So now, perhaps with an eye on Kosovo and a White House scandal, Saddam Hussein chose this moment to press forward by halting inspections altogether. The Clinton administration responded with a familiar scenario: Secretary of Defense William Cohen, flying over the Pacific on his way to the Far East, was dramatically called back and sent instead to round up support in Europe and Saudi Arabia. Sending Mr. Cohen rather than Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was supposed to convey a military overtone. The president's security team met in a crisis atmosphere, calls were made to Paris and Moscow. Words were uttered about all options being open. "That includes force," a senior official said on a background basis. And, on deep background, "That includes unilateral force if necessary."

Whoever may have been impressed, Iraq seemed not to be. Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan said, "Iraq does not fear the threat of the United States because it has been threatening Iraq for the past eight years." Whether Saddam Hussein has misread Clinton, as he misread President Bush in invading Kuwait in 1990, remains to be seen. The administration is letting it be known that various military options are being considered.

One of them, reported by the Wall Street Journal, would be to demand inspection of a given site and, when refused, proceed to destroy the facility.

One thing the administration seems determined to avoid is deadlines that are repeatedly postponed, as happened in Kosovo. Clinton has tried very hard to avoid a showdown with Iraq. Apparently Saddam Hussein won't let him.

* Daniel Schorr is senior news analyst for National Public Radio.

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