Attack on Iraq May Be Outcome Hussein Wants
After seven years of diplomatic battles with the United States, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein may actually welcome a major military assault, say analysts in the U.S. and diplomats from allied countries.
The Iraqi leader, they say, apparently sees a military showdown as a catalyst for settling a critical question: whether international sanctions, which have cost Baghdad $100 billion in lost oil revenue since 1990, will be lifted as long as he remains in power.
“He’s overplayed his hand quite deliberately,” said Judy Yaphe, an Iraq specialist at the National Defense University in Washington, referring to the limits Hussein has placed on U.N. weapons inspectors. “He grew tired of waiting. And he’s a risk-taker, so he went out and did something that he is risking will help get an end to sanctions.”
Specifically, Hussein appears to be gambling that Washington will pay a high political price internationally if it follows through with plans for the largest military attack since the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
With France and particularly Russia pushing to ease the squeeze on Iraq, Hussein sees the U.S. position as the key, and he is obsessed with undermining it, analysts and diplomats say.
He can do that by making Washington--if it launches a strike with limited public support from members of the coalition that defeated Iraq in 1991--look like a bully, they say.
The plight of the Iraqi people has already generated international sympathy, which in turn pressures Arab and Gulf leaders to distance themselves from tough U.S. action.
By absorbing punishing military blows, Iraq would project new images of suffering--at U.S. expense.
“In contrast to the Gulf War, we’ll look like the bad guys,” said James Placke, a former U.S. diplomat in Iraq now with Cambridge Energy Research Associates. “Back then, we were opposing an evil act, a virtually unprecedented invasion [of Kuwait by Iraq] that violated all principles of Arab unity.
“But now, we look like the strong going after the weak, as if we’re going after one individual rather than a broader evil.”
After a military confrontation, Hussein could try to channel international anger or sympathy into support for his position--that the time has come for some kind of accommodation between Iraq and the outside world--diplomats and analysts say.
He specifically wants the U.N. to do two things: to declare that Iraq has complied on dismantling its long-range missile and nuclear weapons programs, which would end the search for either; and to provide Baghdad with a timetable for easing or ending the toughest international embargo ever imposed on a nation.
Alternatively, they say, Hussein may believe that he can discredit the United States if any attacks do not achieve the desired goals.
“The stakes are huge,” said Geoffrey Kemp, who was in charge of Mideast policy in the Reagan administration. “An ineffective strike that leaves many Iraqis and maybe a few Americans dead will dramatically undermine U.S. credibility in the Mideast.”
Since the long-term U.S. goal is as much political as strategic--to squeeze Hussein out of power--Baghdad believes that Washington has set itself up for a potentially large fall, the diplomats and analysts say.
“Afterward, Saddam can crawl out of his foxhole and say: ‘You didn’t get me. With all those ships and all that firepower, you couldn’t accomplish your purpose,’ ” Placke said. “Then who will be perceived as the winner?”
After a strike, Hussein could also feel he is in a position to do something radical, such as kick out the U.N. inspectors altogether--and blame it on Washington.
“He can say, ‘OK, you bombed and I’m still here, and now it’s clear that sanctions won’t be lifted while I’m in power, so I’m getting rid of the U.N. since there’s no point in cooperating,’ ” a French envoy said.
“And then he or demonstrating Iraqis could take down the monitoring equipment,” the envoy said. “So the danger is that a military strike could end up jeopardizing all the efforts we’ve made for seven years--we’d be far worse off than before, and he’d be free to produce whatever weapons he wants.”
At that point, reviving the disarmament program would probably prove difficult, at least under the terms under which it has been operating since 1991.
“Once the weapons inspectors have gone, they are unlikely to return as long as Saddam survives,” Kemp predicted.
The only option left, diplomats and analysts say, would be a ground offensive that might have to penetrate deeper into Iraq than the one during the Gulf War. All former coalition members have ruled out such a step.
As it did last fall over the expulsion of U.S. weapons inspectors, Baghdad may cave at the eleventh hour under the weight of international pressure and U.S. threats.
The Russians, who have become the primary advocates for easing the pressure on Iraq, may be able to persuade Hussein to open to inspectors the presidential compounds that Iraq claims are “sensitive” and “sovereign” sites off limits to outsiders.
But that outcome would probably lead to another standoff in a yo-yo sequence of confrontations, analysts and European envoys predict, with Hussein continuing to create showdowns in search of a break in sanctions and weapons inspections.
Much like Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, Hussein “keeps pushing hard until he hits a brick wall and he has to back up,” Yaphe said. “But then he just goes out and looks again for mush, so he can move forward.”
Washington correspondent Wright is covering the Mideast and European tour by the secretary of State.
* RUSSIAN REBUFF TO U.S.
The Kremlin’s top diplomat called Washington’s warnings to Iraq premature. A10