It's a Familiar Conundrum for White House

TIMES STAFF WRITER

After seven frustrating months of trying to deal with the obstreperous Iraqi regime, the Bush Administration's threat to send warplanes to Saudi Arabia dramatically reflects the coalition's failure to remove Iraq's President Saddam Hussein as a regional threat or to eliminate his arsenal.

Indeed, the Administration finds itself facing an uncomfortably familiar conundrum.

Even if Baghdad's weapons of mass destruction are destroyed, either through cooperation or by force, Iraq is still likely to have the will and the knowledge to rebuild them, U.S. officials and analysts conceded Wednesday.

The most sobering postwar lesson for the 28-nation coalition has been that Hussein is prepared to break every promise made to his own people and the world--whatever the cost--to accommodate his own agenda.

And, so far, his tactics have been most effective.

"Saddam is the master of the waiting game," said Senate Foreign Relations Committee staffer Peter Galbraith, who just returned from a visit to northern Iraq. "A further bombing attack of Iraqi facilities is going to have minimal consequences, because the problem is not the equipment or technology that Iraq currently possesses. The problem is . . . that Iraq has the knowledge to make these weapons and the will to cheat on its international obligations.

"We can bomb his stuff next week, and six months from now Iraq will be back to where it is today," he added. "Saddam is calculating that we won't keep coming back."

The widespread recognition that Operation Desert Storm and its aftermath may have fallen short of their broader objectives appears to be winning support for renewed U.S. intervention in the Gulf, with few of the public objections raised during the traumatic run-up to war a year ago.

The initial reports Wednesday that the Administration already had ordered warplanes to the Gulf won strong congressional support. And both U.S. and private analysts agreed that a return to the Middle East would not affect either of the other two regional flash points: the hostage crisis in Lebanon or the Arab-Israeli peace efforts, both of which involve other players.

While Administration sources publicly cautioned against overrating the possibility of military action, U.S. officials privately made clear that the threat was not necessarily just muscle-flexing to force Baghdad's cooperation in destroying its arsenal.

Some seemed almost eager to get back to unfinished business in the Gulf.

"I hope he thinks it's a bluff and misreads it," said a senior official. "My big fear is that he may back down."

Yet a Gulf War sequel may prove even more difficult for another reason.

The U.N. inspection delays have bought Baghdad vital time.

The remainder of Baghdad's nuclear, chemical and biological arsenal--and the equipment used to produce it--is now believed to be so widely dispersed that neither the U.N. inspection teams nor military bombardment may be able to uncover or destroy it all. "Even if we occupied Iraq, we'd have a hard time finding everything," said Gary Milhollin, a nuclear arms specialist.

Ultimately, a U.S. decision to renew fighting in the Gulf might only underscore an old Middle East adage: Once involved, it's almost impossible to get out.

But the Administration hopes the gritty test of wills between George Bush and Saddam Hussein over Iraq's compliance with military commitments may reap some political benefits. A show of force might help curb the Iraqi regime's growing list of political excesses and abuses since the international focus shifted away from the Gulf, U.S. sources said Wednesday.

Virtually no progress has been made in talks on Kurdish autonomy. Hussein has delayed movement on promises of democratization and national elections. And recently appointed reformers, such as Prime Minister Sadoun Hammadi, have been fired.

The Administration also hopes that its willingness to stand up again to Hussein will send a signal to Iraq's war-weary population.

"The message to the Iraqi people and the Iraqi establishment is simple," said Ken Katzman, a Gulf specialist at the Congressional Research Service. "Saddam means war and death. Stick with Saddam and there'll be further death.

"After 10 years and two wars, if he is viewed as bringing more hardship, it has to hurt his position. That doesn't mean thousands will turn out to demonstrate tomorrow. But whether we do go in or not, it will help the opposition.'

Intervention also appears to have the backing of many key players in the Middle East and Europe. The planning follows behind-the-scenes consultations with Gulf states and European partners in the 28-nation coalition.

While details still must be worked out about possible European participation, the groundwork for a new U.S. deployment was laid on Saturday when President Bush talked with King Fahd of Saudi Arabia. And Prince Bandar ibn Sultan, Saudi ambassador to Washington, flew to Cairo for further talks Wednesday with Secretary of State James A. Baker III.

"The Saudis have been ahead of the U.S. on stopping this nonsense. There's no equivocation there. They think something needs to be done," said a close source to the kingdom.

The Saudis favor dealing directly with the United States to avoid having the crisis get bogged down in long U.N. debates, new resolutions or discussion of sending in Arab forces, the source added. "The will of the gesture is lost, if it hangs fire for awhile," he said.

It will not, however, change Saudi rejection of permanent U.S. military bases in the kingdom. Because of pressures from the religious right, the ruling House of Saud will continue to prefer that Western troops deploy only as needed.

The timing of possible new intervention appears to be at least partially linked to U.S. plans to withdraw its rapid strike force from Turkey by Sept. 30.

In parliamentary elections scheduled for next month, Turkish President Turgut Ozal's ruling Motherland Party is expected to lose. Turkey's high-profile role in the coalition and the use of its military bases in operations against neighboring Iraq have been so controversial that several Cabinet members have resigned.

The Administration would like the inspection issue resolved before it scales back the operation to protect Iraq's northern Kurds at the end of the month.

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