Iraq Flexes Its Muscle--Again

Iraq has raised the decibel level in its war of words on Kuwait, accusing its small and almost defenseless southern neighbor of joining the United States to conspire against it. This alleged plot involves driving down oil prices--from $22 a barrel in January to about $16 in June--in a deliberate effort to sabotage Iraq's war-battered economy.

Oil and money are very much what this confrontation is all about, and probably Iraq's menacing tactics won't go beyond loud threats and militant posturing. But 30,000 Iraqi troops have been massed on Kuwait's border, the State Department has reaffirmed U.S. support for Kuwait's territorial integrity and American naval forces in the Persian Gulf are almost certainly now on alert. Miscalculation has given rise to more than one costly war. Iraq's dictator Saddam Hussein, who narrowly survived his blunder into an eight-year conflict with Iran, has cause to remember that.

The timing of Iraq's bellicosity is the tip-off to its purpose. Iraq will be one of those at this week's OPEC meeting demanding that oil production quotas be strictly respected in an effort to prop up prices. Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates are among the producers notorious for cheating on their quotas. Iraq can expect to get the tighter controls it seeks.

What it also explicitly wants is debt forgiveness from Kuwait. Iraq borrowed an estimated $70 billion to stay afloat during its war with Iran, about $15 billion from Kuwait. With Iraqi oil once again flowing to world markets Kuwait has not unreasonably asked for repayment. A bitter Iraq says it finds this request inimical to the spirit of Arab solidarity. Clearly it aims to coerce Kuwait to turn its loan into a gift. If it works, other Arab lenders, including Saudi Arabia, biggest of them all, can expect the same treatment.

Meanwhile, troops march, weapons are paraded, accusations are hurled. In the end, probably, Saddam Hussein will get what he wants without firing a shot. That, though, will likely keep this supremely ambitious despot contented only until the next time he chooses to cast a covetous eye on one of his weaker Gulf neighbors.

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