NEWS ANALYSIS : Post-Gulf War Strategy Gave Hussein Leeway

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The confrontation pitting the United Nations against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein escalated into a crisis this weekend because of postwar miscalculations, policy shortfalls and a basic misreading of the Iraqi leader, according to a cross section of U.S. and Arab experts.

Several analysts think a showdown has been virtually inevitable since the war ended 17 months ago. Some even believe a decision from Baghdad to comply with U.N. weapons inspectors--thus ending the current standoff--would be only a temporary reprieve. Hussein, they contend, will just keep provoking the U.S.-led coalition until it is eventually forced to act.

"This has been coming all along," said Peter Galbraith, an Iraq expert on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff. "It was inevitable that he would try in every way possible to evade his obligations under the cease-fire resolution."

The central flaw was strategic, analysts say. Ever since Iraq's invasion of Kuwait about two years ago, the coalition arrayed against Hussein has had one set of goals, but an entirely mismatched set of expectations.

The mandate from 23 resolutions adopted by the United Nations basically covered liberating Kuwait, disarming Iraq and grappling with the aftermath of war. But they never dealt directly with the status of Hussein--whose ouster has, in fact, been essential to achieving the coalition's implicit goals.

President Bush, for example, goes far beyond the U.N. resolutions, stipulating that economic sanctions against Iraq will not be lifted until the Iraqi leader, whom he has compared to Hitler, is overthrown. Sanctions were originally imposed only to force Iraq out of Kuwait.

If the United States and its main European and Arab allies in the 28-nation coalition had been more straightforward about their ultimate goals, then the conduct of the final stage of the war, the cease-fire terms and postwar strategy might have led to circumstances that avoided the current showdown--and possibly undermined Hussein, the analysts say.

That would not necessarily have meant marching all the way to Baghdad in February, 1991. "In hindsight, that may seem to have been a more desirable option," said an Arab envoy close to the coalition. "But the costs on many fronts would have been too high. That is not where the mistake was made."

Instead, the coalition could have fought longer, mainly to weaken the Iraqi army and either destroy or eat away at Hussein's arsenal--the two main tools keeping him in power. "Even a couple of days would have made a difference," a U.S. military analyst said.

"Everyone was caught up in how many (Iraqi troops) had defected and how much stuff had been destroyed," the analyst said. "Not enough attention was paid to how many were still in the army and what arms he still had. Saddam was left enough to hold on in Baghdad and to hold out against the United Nations."

The current standoff also grows out of postwar strategies that failed to squeeze Hussein into compliance--or offer Iraqi opposition groups a reasonable chance to replace him, analysts contend.

For example, as part of the cease-fire agreement, the U.S.-led coalition did not compel Iraq to have its army stand in place or, alternatively, restrict the movements of tanks, personnel carriers and larger weapons that the United Nations allowed Hussein to keep. Those steps could have prevented the kind of movements Hussein has ordered over the past 17 months to keep domestic opponents in line and to prevent coup attempts.

Hussein's maneuverability also would have been limited by a provision barring the Iraqi army from being used against the Iraqi people. Such a rule could have prevented the massive use of force to put down postwar uprisings in both the Kurdish north and the Shiite-dominated south.

"All the problems we currently face are directly related to the decision not to assist the uprisings after the war that might have removed Saddam from power," an American Mideast specialist said.

Some analysts doubt, however, whether provisions attempting to control the Iraqi military really would have been enforceable. But they at least would have enabled coalition forces to block the Iraqi crackdown during the uprisings.

"We were in control of southern Iraq," Galbraith said. "We could have blocked the tanks from moving against the Shia. American troops basically watched as Republican Guards destroyed the uprising. And if the rebellion in the south hadn't been crushed, then Iraq couldn't have turned its guns" on the Kurds, Galbraith said.

Several analysts said the Administration's decision not to get involved in Iraq's civil war was a turning point, after which the opposition was unable to regroup. "Our decision not to get involved was interpreted by Saddam as giving him a free hand to put down the rebellions," the Mideast specialist said.

Despite wanting to get rid of Hussein, U.S. postwar strategy emphasized preventing the breakup of Iraq, which could have led to political instability throughout the region, U.S. and Arab analysts say.

Many in Iraq and elsewhere in the Arab world think Washington believes that maintaining a weak Hussein in power is preferable to watching rebellions fragment the oil-rich and strategic country.

The Iraqi leader has in fact been probing the coalition's preferences and limits over the past 17 months. Since April, he has become increasingly bold on three crucial fronts, analysts say.

* In April, Iranian opposition forces based in Iraq engaged in small raids along the Iranian border, to which Tehran responded by dispatching warplanes. For the first time since the war's end, Iraq sent up its warplanes--in violation of the cease-fire agreement's ban on flying fixed-wing aircraft.

The United Nations did not take action to stop the Iraqi planes, which have been flying regularly ever since, according to Pentagon officials. Analysts say this was interpreted as another indication either that coalition unity was eroding or that it didn't care.

* This month, Baghdad has dispatched troops to move against Shiite opposition in the south, and orchestrated a campaign of attacks behind Kurdish lines in the north. Among the incidents in Kurdistan was a car-bombing near the wife of the French president.

Neither became a major issue, however, until the 17-day blockade of U.N. inspectors trying to get access to the Ministry of Agriculture. Only Saturday, in fact, did the Administration complain publicly about the "long record of Iraqi noncompliance."

* Baghdad has also balked, without eliciting international reaction, to the new borders drawn up between Iraq and Kuwait. In recent weeks, Iraqi officials and media have even talked openly again of Kuwait being the 19th province of Iraq.

"The coalition has to be held partially accountable for what's happened," said a U.S. policy analyst who has grown frustrated trying to get the Administration to act on some of these issues.

"We let Saddam get away with a lot of stuff through our own neglect, when our attention was on other parts of the world or at home. It should hardly be a surprise that he picked up the ball and ran with it."

As for what steps will now work to put the coalition back on course, U.S. analysts in and outside government are skeptical that an air strike, however long or punishing, will either disarm Iraq or encourage the implicit goal of ousting Hussein.

Several analysts are urging the United States to tighten sanctions, which have become increasingly lax since the spring, by putting inspectors inside the Iraqi border. Another step would be to dispatch warplanes whenever Iraqi fixed-wing planes take to the skies.

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