Far from being cowed by four days of bombing, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein seems as determined as ever to bust out of the military and economic "cage" in which the United States and Britain are striving to keep him.
Having survived last month's operation Desert Fox and crippled the United Nations' hunt for his weapons of mass destruction, he is now taking aim at the no-fly zones over southern and northern Iraq, firing twice last week at US and British planes.
"We will continue to liberate Iraq's sky from the evil ones," declared a letter to Saddam from one of his chief generals, Ali Hassan al-Majeed, who claimed "a near certain hit" on a US plane on Dec. 30. US officials dismissed that and a similar claim two days earlier as propaganda, saying American aircraft returned safely to their bases after destroying the offending missile batteries.
Still, for the US and Britain, Saddam's apparent willingness to sacrifice air defense systems and crews to retaliation from radar-seeking missiles and laser-guided bombs may presage a dangerous low-level war of attrition that could drag on for months.
Luring the allies into new clashes would not just test Western resolve to maintain the no-fly zones against the threat from dozens of hard-to-track mobile SA-6 missile batteries and large numbers of fixed SA-2 and SA-3 units. It might also further destabilize the world's main oil-producing region by inflaming popular opposition to its pro-West regimes and the indefinite presence of US and British forces.
Furthermore, experts say, a prolonged conflict could strain public patience in the US and Britain for staying the course in the Persian Gulf, especially if a pilot is killed or captured, by upping the human and political costs of what has become a crisis with no apparent end.
"If he downs an American pilot ... what a bonus it would be politically for him," says Amatzia Baram, an Iraq expert at Georgetown University in Washington.
Provoking new clashes might also bolster Saddam at home and within the Arab world, where he commands enormous popular adulation, especially if allied counterattacks result in Iraqi civilian casualties.
Ultimately, experts believe, Saddam's major aim is to keep attention riveted on his quest for an end to the UN sanctions that have wrecked his economy - and prevented him from re-arming his military - since their imposition after his 1990 invasion of Kuwait, experts say.
THE US and Britain will veto any lifting of the sanctions until UN inspectors certify the destruction of all of Iraq's biological, chemical, and nuclear arms programs. Baghdad claims they have been eliminated.
But by refusing to allow inspections to resume to confirm its assertion, experts say, Iraq may hope prolonged strife could offer another way out by persuading sympathetic states to challenge the US and British stance, or even break sanctions.
"This keeps the whole issue of sanctions on the burner of the [UN] Security Council and constantly dramatizes the fact that US and British forces are still present and challenging Iraqi sovereignty," says Anthony Cordesman, an Iraq expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Yet if this is Saddam's strategy, it carries grave risks of backfiring. Not only could new Iraqi attacks redouble the determination of the US and Britain to maintain the no-fly zones and destabilize Saddam, but they could make it even harder to end the sanctions.
The US and Britain insist they will maintain the zones as part of a stepped-up use of military muscle to contain Saddam's threat to adjacent states in the absence of UN arms inspections. But the zones are also key to a new Western effort to foment internal opposition to Saddam.
The zones were established after the Gulf War to protect rebellious Shiite Arabs in the south and Kurdish rebels in the north. Allowing Saddam to reassert control in those areas would eliminate any chance of using them in the future as bases from which to destabilize his regime.
Provoking new clashes could also trigger massive retaliation against Iraq, especially if an allied plane is lost. Such an occurrence might also rally popular support in the US and Britain for the effort to drive Saddam from power. "If he takes down an aircraft ... all bets are off," says Judith Yaphe, an Iraq expert at the Pentagon's National Defense University.
Nor is there any evidence of a groundswell in international sympathy for Iraq following the US counterattacks on the Iraqi missile batteries that fired Dec. 28 and 30 on American and British planes. Indeed, just the opposite appears to have occurred.
Russia, France, and China, Iraq's key Security Council allies and strident critics of operation Desert Fox, have been largely silent about the incidents. The Arab League, meanwhile, postponed a meeting Iraq hoped would include a condemnation of the US and Britain, while an Iraqi call on Arab states to defy the sanctions has gone unheeded.
The absence of support appears to have triggered enormous frustration in Baghdad, with the regime spouting unusually harsh invectives against Russia, France, Egypt, and other sympathizers.
Such criticism, experts say, will do little to advance Iraq's case against continuing the sanctions.