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NEWS ANALYSIS : U.S. Back to Square One in the Gulf : Mideast: Despite huge show of American force, Hussein is still in power, and the area is still vulnerable, experts say.


WASHINGTON — In its second confrontation with Saddam Hussein, the United States may have lost a critical opportunity to accelerate the political demise of the Iraqi dictator.

The Clinton Administration has used a massive show of force in the Persian Gulf in hopes of warding off any threatening Iraqi troop movements at the Kuwaiti border.

But experts said that the Administration's tepid diplomatic move--a proposed new United Nations resolution restricting the movement of Iraq's elite Republican Guard--leaves the U.S.-led coalition against Iraq pretty much where it was: with Hussein's power unchecked and the strategic, oil-rich Gulf still vulnerable to his whims.

"We have a short-term posture that is viable, but no longer-term strategy to deal with the danger of Saddam next time," said William Quandt, who was a Middle East strategist in the Jimmy Carter Administration and now is at the University of Virginia.

"There's no policy to get us beyond the next year. So this doesn't look like a great success."

The political gains made during the decisive initial deployment of U.S. troops now could be diluted by lack of definitive follow-through as the United States appears to bow to its allies' individual priorities, notably potential profits to be made in deals negotiated with Iraq.

"The Administration has created a situation where U.S. foreign policy is reduced to the lowest common denominator among the (U.N.) Security Council," said Laurie Mylroie, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia.

And the President's image is suffering. A poll taken for NBC-TV's "Dateline" and reported on that program Wednesday night showed that 51% of Americans think Hussein will remain in office longer than Bill Clinton.

Experts have advocated a variety of political and military alternatives as responses to Iraq's massing of troops near Kuwait's border, but virtually all expressed concern Thursday that the Clinton Administration's reaction falls far short of even minimal punishment.

Many compared it to the George Bush Administration's decision to back away from any role in the simultaneous 1991 uprisings by northern Kurds and southern Shiite Muslims immediately after the war, a policy subsequently criticized by a Senate Foreign Relations Committee report as a missed opportunity to weaken and potentially topple Hussein.

Most fundamentally, current U.S. strategy makes the long-sought end game ever more illusive. The U.S.-led coalition would effectively be conceding that it is prepared to deal only with the immediate issue of Kuwait's borders rather than the core problem of Hussein's rule.

Even an Administration proposal Thursday to indefinitely deploy thousands more U.S. troops in the Persian Gulf is a reaction to the current crisis and not a strategy for dealing with Hussein's rule.

The repercussions of the U.S.-orchestrated response also play out at other levels.

* First, and most ominously, because the U.S. response has had negligible impact on his army, Hussein could move south and threaten Kuwait or Saudi borders again--potentially even with the elite Republican Guard units, who supposedly are to be banned from border areas.

"What does limiting the Republican Guards do? All Hussein has to do is put them in regular army uniforms or rename the units," Mylroie said.

"Saddam will see this as a victory. We sent tens of thousands of troops and hundreds of warplanes halfway around the world at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars, and then did almost nothing. He (Hussein) hasn't paid a price, and he may think he's gained by drawing attention to the suffering in Iraq from sanctions," Mylroie added.

* Second, the limited coalition response will not encourage the Iraqi opposition. Indeed, it may even discourage anti-Hussein activity in critical power centers such as the Iraqi military, the only body deemed capable of overthrowing him.

"The impression in Baghdad is that the United States wants Saddam there, because we didn't support the 1991 rebellions. They believe that if we wanted him out, he'd be out," said Phebe Marr of Washington's National Defense University.

* Third, the U.S.-led coalition of European and Arab countries comes away weakened, with the potential for further splintering. The United States is now widely seen as having succumbed to pressure by European allies, notably France and Russia, not to take stronger action, including a possible exclusion or demilitarized zone in southern Iraq.

Both Paris and Moscow have been negotiating billion-dollar deals with Baghdad, to go into effect when sanctions are lifted. Both have also endorsed expediting the process required to lift sanctions.

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