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Hussein May Be Bidding to Curb Internal Woes


WASHINGTON — Like a cornered cat, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is making a desperate bid to survive growing internal pressures and prospects that the international sanctions strangling his economy will not be lifted soon, according to U.S. experts.

In provoking a crisis--massing his troops near the Kuwaiti border and then announcing a pullback--he hopes to divert domestic attention from growing evidence of instability, marked by a spate of recent bombings of government targets, purges, the halving of rations and Draconian new punishments for crimes and defections.

"When he took over the premiership months ago, he promised things were going to get better. But instead the economy and the security situation only got worse," said Phebe Marr, an Iraq specialist at Washington's National Defense University.

"Then as it became apparent that the debate on U.N. sanctions was not going to yield much, Saddam couldn't be seen to be sitting in Baghdad doing nothing."

The surprise move also marked an attempt to manipulate international opinion, perhaps in the naive belief that the United States might engage in negotiations to avoid a showdown while it is preoccupied with Haiti or as it has done with the regimes in North Korea and Cuba recently.

Yet the regime's pledge Monday to back down does not necessarily mark the end of the latest crisis--nor the final phase of Hussein's rule. It reminds the international community that Hussein can still cause severe problems in the region--and he knows it.

"The fact of the matter is that Iraq remains the military power in the region and is still a threat to its (Persian) Gulf neighbors," said Anthony H. Cordesman, Georgetown University professor and author of the just published "Iran and Iraq: The Threat from the Northern Gulf."

Baghdad could dispatch troops to the southern frontier whenever it wants--precipitating a series of costly crises and playing the United States and its allies like a yo-yo.

"The problem isn't just whether he's dancing at the border but whether his forces are in southern Iraq. It takes days to get U.S. ships from (the Indian Ocean island of) Diego Garcia. There's always the risk of being overrun," Cordesman noted.

"He also may think he can pin down the United States indefinitely if we don't deal with him. He may think over time he can force us to negotiate to avoid a permanent or enduring confrontation."

Hussein's unpredictability thus leaves the Clinton Administration with a thorny and potentially continuing problem. And so far, Saudi Arabia and other allies have not offered to pick up the tab for this operation, as they did to the tune of more than $65 billion for Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm.

But whatever the cost, the coalition probably would have to redeploy for other reasons unrelated to Kuwait's security, experts contend. Any instability in the region that would cut off the free flow of oil, for instance, could force the coalition into action.

"This is a wake-up call. Since the Gulf War, the United States has become more, not less, dependent on Gulf oil," said Geoffrey Kemp, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

"And there's nothing on the horizon to indicate any change over the next decade. So we and our allies have to pay more attention to the Gulf, not less."

But in leading the anti-Hussein alliance, the Administration has limited options in terms of response. The current mandate, stipulated under a series of 1990 and 1991 U.N. resolutions, is limited to issues related to the defense of Kuwait. It does not provide significant latitude for the alliance to move within Iraq or against Baghdad for internal reasons.

Allocations for U.S. intelligence operations against Hussein's regime have more than quadrupled since the Persian Gulf War ended in 1991. Yet none of the opposition groups from any of Iraq's three major ethnic or religious groups--northern Kurds, the ruling Sunni Muslim minority or the majority southern Shiites--is considered to be strong enough to oust Hussein, experts said.

Yet conditions inside Iraq appear to have crossed a threshold, they added.

Inflation was estimated at a staggering 24,000%, and child mortality has quadrupled since the war, Iraqi officials said this summer. The economy generally has deteriorated so badly that the government recently was forced to halve rations originally intended to appease the public because of widespread shortages and soaring prices of basic foodstuffs.

A senior U.S. official said that the shifting circumstances have created "an aura of desperation." But Hussein is a master at using dramatic techniques to mobilize domestic opinion and to manipulate the international community, the official said.

Yet the latest chapter in the Iraqi drama appears to have backfired on Hussein.

Until the crisis, Russia, France, China and Turkey--three members of the U.N. Security Council and a critical Iraqi neighbor--favored easing the sanctions after a six-month testing of Iraq's compliance with U.N. monitoring of its weapons of mass destruction, which went into effect Monday. But the United States opposed easing the sanctions, saying that Hussein had not complied with other conditions, such as recognizing Kuwait's borders.

The result of Hussein's troop movements is that those who favored the easing are now more likely to support the call by the United States and Britain for continuing the sanctions, the analysts said. While the coalition recently looked like it might be fracturing over the sanctions issue, it now appears likely once again to unite.

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