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The Line in the Sand : The Fate of Kuwait and Beyond : The Mideast : Raising the Blood Stakes in a Dangerous Neighborhood : In a region that lurches from crisis to crisis, Hussein has unleashed forces that will change the balance of power well into the next century.

November 25, 1990|DAVID LAMB

Fearful as always of assassination, Saddam Hussein flew into Amman in an unmarked executive jet . He arrived minutes after an Iraqi Airways Boeing 727 touched down, full of subordinates whom he had sent in first as a more visible target.

In coat and tie and accompanied by two bodyguards, he paused briefly at the door of the plane. Then he stepped out onto a red carpet. An honor guard from the Arab Legion snapped to attention. Jordan's King Hussein smiled and stretched out his arms. The two men hugged and exchanged kisses on both cheeks. It was the same embrace the monarch had shared only an hour earlier with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak--whose troops would soon face Saddam's in the sands of the Arabian desert.

Saddam Hussein appeared unusually somber. After exchanging pleasantries and reviewing the honor guard, he sped away from the airport in a black limousine. What had brought him to Jordan was the first anniversary of the Arab Cooperation Council, a regional fraternity to which no one but King Hussein paid much attention. But when Saddam got up to speak in the glass-walled Royal Cultural Center, he slipped through breezy rhetoric on the strength of Arab unity--"We can see the bright lights of holy Jerusalem"--then unloaded some dark thoughts about a new world order in the Middle East. It was still early in the year--only Feb. 24--but his words were, in retrospect, a warning of what was to come.

The clouds of war began taking shape in Saddam Hussein's mind during those raw February days, although there is every indication that if he had gotten the deal he wanted--if Kuwait had given him the money he demanded, the access to the Persian Gulf he needed and the help he sought in pushing world oil prices higher--Saddam would have settled for a diplomatic solution between brotherly Arab states. But either way, peacefully or militarily, Saddam intended to make Iraq the principal power in the gulf; and he knew he could not wait forever. His country was broke after an eight-year war with Iran. His Soviet patrons were withdrawing their support. His million-man army was idle--something that makes any dictator nervous--and the Kuwaitis were stubborn. They were ignoring his call for less oil production. Lower oil prices were costing Iraq billions of dollars. From Saddam Hussein's perspective, Kuwait's intransigence was tantamount to economic warfare.

With Moscow's influence diminishing, he told his Arab brothers at the assembly in Jordan, the United States was positioning itself to fill a superpower vacuum in the gulf. Together with its Israeli allies, Washington intended to undermine the Arabs, he warned. Now the United States would control oil prices, help settle Israel's occupied territories with Soviet Jews and dominate the region militarily. There was no room, he argued, for "faint-hearted" Arabs who were willing to let the United States have its way.

Mubarak, America's most important Arab ally and the recipient of $3 billion a year in U.S. aid, sat listening, at times visibly angered. He did not applaud when the Iraqi president finished speaking.

Saddam's tone would become even more belligerent in the weeks ahead, particularly toward Kuwait, one of the nations that had bankrolled his war against Iran. In July he sent an envoy, Sadoun Hammadi, to Kuwait to demand $10 billion. Kuwait countered by offering $600 million. Other Iraqi envoys, Arab sources say, traveled throughout the Middle East, bearing promises of lavish gifts for those willing to support the disembowelment of Kuwait. Yasser Arafat, the sources say, was offered an Iraqi base for the Palestine Liberation Organization; Tunisia could forget its debt to Kuwait and keep the hotels it had built with Kuwaiti loans; impoverished Jordan would get a cut of Kuwait's oil revenues; Yemen would get support in its territorial dispute with Saudi Arabia. Saddam phoned Cairo himself. He offered Mubarak $50 million in two payments--one for the purchase of wheat, the other for use at Mubarak's discretion.

Mubarak said he would not be a party to extortion and hung up.

All the while, Iraqi soldiers were massing near the Kuwait border. On the night of July 27, an American KH-11 satellite, using infrared technology and a system that magnifies starlight, detected trucks hauling ammunition, fuel and water out of Baghdad and Basra toward the Iraqi front lines--supplies the troops would need for war.

Four days later, during a congressional hearing in Washington, Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on the Middle East, asked John Kelly, assistant secretary of state for Near East and South Asian affairs, this question: "If Iraq, for example, charged across the border into Kuwait, . . . what would be our position with regard to the use of U.S. forces?"

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