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Regional Outlook : Hussein Defies Odds--He's Still in Power : Humiliated in war, isolated in the Mideast, despised by many at home, the Iraqi leader retains the reins. And he may for a while. But eventually. . . .

April 23, 1991|ROBIN WRIGHT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Sanctioned by the outside world, isolated within the Middle East, and despised by many of his own people, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's staying power has defied the stunning odds against him. And there may be more surprises to come.

"At this stage, it does look like he could survive a couple of years or longer," said Peter Galbraith, a Senate Foreign Relations staffer who was in northern Iraq last month. "That's not to say he will. But he's spilled enough blood to secure his own position and maybe even improve it. He's a latter-day Dracula."

After the swift and devastating conclusion to Operation Desert Storm on Feb. 27, Washington had hoped the military humiliation, economic devastation and political fury within Iraq would trigger an equally swift end to Hussein's 12-year rule. Unofficial U.S. "guesstimates" gave him weeks or, in the worst-case scenario, a few months.

Instead, Baghdad's ruthless repression of the simultaneous Kurdish and Shiite rebellions may have provided a means for Hussein to reconsolidate his control of the strategic and oil-rich Gulf nation.

Despite blunt ongoing calls for Hussein's overthrow, the Bush Administration has been left without an alternative plan or specific prognosis on his future. Its hopes now depend, by a process of elimination, on elements within the Iraqi regime itself to oust him.

The latest official scenario rather vaguely envisions the military cementing the hold of Sunni Arabs, rather than Shiite Muslims or non-Arab Kurds, on the state apparatus. Aware of the economic and political costs of Hussein's continued rule if Baghdad ever hopes to rebuild the shattered nation, a small group of army officers or political insiders would then move to replace him with one of their own.

But even that alternative may be derailed, ironically, by the deployment of U.S. and European troops in northern Iraq to facilitate the return of Kurdish refugees and ensure their protection.

"The international outrage over the Kurdish situation is not as widely shared among Arabs and Sunni Muslims as it is with us. In a sense, these disasters may have a contrary and positive effect on (Saddam Hussein) in terms of his standing in his own community," said Michael Hudson of Georgetown University's Center for Contemporary Arab Studies.

As a result, he suggested, Hussein "may have already weathered the period of maximum danger."

The leadership of one of the Middle East's most vital geo-strategic properties now centers on the answers to several questions:

* After two costly wars that dominated nine of his 12 years in power and bankrupted his country, how resilient is Hussein?

Obviously more than most both inside and outside expected.

"He is a very tough customer who is very well entrenched and who has survived several assassination attempts," said James Placke, a former U.S. envoy to Iraq. "If getting rid of him had been easy, it would have been done long ago."

The Iraqi president's cunning ability to finesse and to convert losses into gains has been a trademark of his rule.

He translated military losses during six of the eight years of the Iran-Iraq War into financial and diplomatic gains. By exploiting fears of Iran's Islamic fundamentalism, Hussein won billions in aid from Gulf sheikdoms, widened Iraq's diplomatic relationship with the West and gained access to sophisticated technology.

He is now trying to convert Iraq's massive losses in Kuwait into gains with similar tactics. At home, he is playing to Sunni fears of Shiite and Kurdish challenges to ensure his own future.

"Since the end of the war, what he's done is re-establish control of central authority. He may be challenged to a minor extent by the Shiites and the Kurds, but he's demonstrated that he can handle those threats," said Placke.

In the region, he is trying to discredit or diminish the coalition's victory by muddying the war's aftermath.

"Simply by surviving, he is taking the edge off the American victory," said Hudson.

"By butchering his own people, Saddam Hussein has scored the political victory that eluded him in the Gulf War," commented Galbraith. "He's sullied the (coalition) triumph of the Gulf War by massacring his own people," triggering U.S. and European intervention in northern Iraq.

Hussein may have lost the war, but he is still able to manipulate events in the Gulf.

* How well can he withstand continued sanctions?

The main challenge to Hussein's regime is economic. Bombed to a "pre-industrial level" according to a U.N. survey, Iraq will have to rebuild much of the nation's infrastructure from scratch.

U.N. sanctions, which had a limited impact on the average Iraqi in the run-up to the conflict, are expected to have a far deeper impact now that the war is over and the devastation so pervasive.

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