Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is back.
A decade ago he terrorized the Middle East with weapons of mass destruction; now he's worrying the West by tinkering with a commodity of mass consumption - oil.
The Iraqi leader appears to be taking full advantage of threefold increases in oil prices over the past 18 months. Provocative Iraqi statements and actions against Kuwait and Saudi Arabia have startled global oil markets this week.
Not only is Mr. Saddam antagonizing two of the world's major oil suppliers, but he is also hinting that he may cut off or reduce Iraq's production, a move that would likely send prices even higher. Iraq is the source of roughly 5 percent of the world's crude-oil production.
With this oil crunch, Saddam sees a new opening - according to analysts in Israel, Jordan, and the US - to widen rifts among the powerful nations that are maintaining trade sanctions against his regime as long as he rebuffs UN weapons inspections.
And he is undoubtedly aware that frustration over the sanctions program is rising around the world.
The Clinton administration seems determined to maintain its hard-line policy toward the nation it defeated in the 1991 Gulf War, along with an international coalition. But with the exception of Britain, which helps the US enforce two vast "no-fly zones" in the north and south of Iraq, America increasingly stands alone in its policy.
Several European countries have said the UN sanctions should be re-evaluated. Russia and Jordan would like to restore air links to Baghdad, which has been all but cut off from international air traffic since 1991.
Even Egypt, a longtime friend of the US in the Middle East, has suggested that the UN should reconsider its policy.
At home, US legislators and humanitarian groups have attacked the sanctions. They cite a UN study indicating that Iraqi children under five years of age are dying twice as fast as they were before the Gulf War - and note that three top UN humanitarian officials stationed in Iraq have resigned in protest since 1998, saying they refused to be associated with the sanctions program.
Apart from some countries in the Persian Gulf region, where people have bitter memories of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, much of the Arab world has long opposed US policy. "People see the sanctions as unjust and unfair and as another testimonial of the American double standard in the Middle East," says Mustafa Harmaneh of Jordan's state-funded Center for Strategic and International Studies in Amman.
Mr. Harmaneh's "double standard" refers to the US's longstanding tolerance of Israel's unacknowledged nuclear weapons. The US cited the need to stop Iraq's nuclear program in putting together the Gulf War coalition.
In recent weeks, US officials have sought to defend and promote their policy. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has said that Iraq, in order to win a suspension of sanctions, must allow new UN weapons inspections according to UN Security Council resolution 1284. China, Russia, and France abstained from voting on the measure when it was approved last year.
Mrs. Albright insists that Saddam is using proceeds from the UN's strictly monitored oil-for-food program to rebuild his military. Visitors to the country have observed thriving luxury-goods shops and say that Saddam has found the money to build opulent, new palaces.
Iraq has sold more than $30 billion worth of oil since oil-for-food was initiated in the mid-1990s and has been able to buy more than $6 billion worth of food, medicine, and industrial equipment needed to produce the oil. US officials review each contract, sometimes incurring long delays, in an effort to ensure that no "dual use" supplies - material with possible military applications - reach Iraq. The rest of the money is being held in escrow.
Another US State Department official this week announced a renewed drive to try Saddam and other Iraqi leaders for war crimes, a move that may be timed to remind the world that Iraq's leadership does not deserve sympathy.
But the near-global frustration with sanctions has never been about supporting Saddam. "This is a tough regime, a ruthless regime, but it's not the regime that's being affected," says Edmund Ghareeb, an Iraq specialist at American University in Washington. "It's the weak and the innocent."
Critics say that the UN's US-driven Iraq policy is another example of a failed attempt to use economic sanctions to achieve a political goal - in this case, Saddam's removal from power.
US officials acknowledge that their goal is to see a change of government in Baghdad - going so far as to spend several million dollars to support Saddam's political opponents.
But Richard Murphy, a former senior US diplomat with long experience in the Middle East, argues that the US government's undisguised goal of removing Saddam from power eliminates any incentive for the Iraqi leader to cooperate with the UN, which is dominated by the US and other powerful nations.
"He's quite comfortable where he is," notes Mr. Murphy, who criticizes the decision to make known what the US would like to see happen in Baghdad. "Talking about it was not clever," he says.
Saddam's recent war of words with Kuwait and the overflight of Saudi territory by an Iraqi jet remind oil traders of the atmosphere before the Gulf War - the last time oil prices were as high as they are now - but a longtime Israeli Iraq-watcher says there is little real danger that Saddam will cut his own country's production. "If he stops selling oil," says Amatzia Baram of the University of Haifa, "there will be panic in Iraq."
Jordanian analyst Harmaneh says the Iraqi leader is underestimated. "Saddam is more pragmatic than people think. He's more interested in breaking the [Gulf War] coalition than in anything else."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society