WASHINGTON — After six years of leading the world community against Iraq, the United States almost cannot avoid responding to the latest aggression by President Saddam Hussein--his assault on the Kurdish enclave in the north of Iraq.
Washington once again may be forced to act--despite an array of complicating factors and a growing frustration in the U.S. that a short war five years ago turned into an open-ended commitment--or risk that Hussein will finally win a round in their long-standing confrontation.
After Hussein's defeat in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the United States was effectively trapped indefinitely in the position of enforcer in the Gulf--a role further necessitated by ongoing U.S. and Western dependence on oil exports from the resource-rich region.
Now, for the first time since the Gulf War, the Iraqi leader has retaken control of territory under U.S. air protection above the 36th parallel.
"If Saddam is permitted to come out of this attack easily, he will be encouraged to attack elsewhere in Kurdistan or in other areas beyond his control in Iraq," Jalal Talabani, the leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, said in an interview with The Times on Sunday. Talabani's group came under attack Saturday by Iraqi forces in tandem with a rival group, the Democratic Party of Kurdistan.
The Iraqi leader also will have proved that his army, demoralized and decimated during the U.S.-led Operation Desert Storm, is again a threat to Baghdad's oil-rich but vulnerable neighbors.
In fact, despite the loss of hundreds of tanks, artillery pieces and other key armaments to the U.S.-led coalition in 1991, Baghdad now boasts the largest, best-trained and most war-hardened military in the region, Pentagon officials concede.
"This is the single most important violation of the red line that the United States and its allies drew after the Gulf War. He has to be stopped and to pay a price for violating that red line--or he's a threat to the whole region again," said Henri Barkey, an expert on Iraq and the Kurds at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., who just returned from the region.
The latest crisis is not the first since Iraq was isolated by the international community. And the Iraqi attack on Irbil, the Kurdish government seat, may not be the last, administration sources fear.
But in many ways, it was not unexpected, largely because the United States was granted only a limited mandate to act against Baghdad after the Iraqis' 1990 invasion of Kuwait.
A series of U.N. resolutions gave the U.S.-led coalition of more than 30 countries freedom to liberate Kuwait. But it fell far short of allowing the military force from six continents to either occupy Iraq or change its leadership.
Thus, despite Operation Desert Storm's punishing air war and swift ground offensive, Hussein, unarguably the Middle East's most ruthless leader, continued to reign--and to be a constant threat to the stability of the region.
Despite the result, former Bush administration officials still defend the limited mission.
"There was never any intention to occupy a country as big as Iraq," former Secretary of State James A. Baker III said Sunday on ABC-TV's "This Week With David Brinkley."
"The Arab members of our coalition would have left us. There wouldn't be a Mideast peace process. [The Arab-Israeli] Madrid [peace conference] never would have happened. The Jordanian and Palestinian agreements with Israel might never have happened. So I think it was the right decision at the time."
Washington originally had little choice but to mobilize the world community in 1990 because of fears that Iraq also might move against Saudi Arabia, the mother lode of oil in the Middle East so vital to Western industries, automobiles and consumers. All six of the Gulf sheikdoms were unable to defend themselves.
Since then, the United States has done virtually nothing about diversifying oil imports or developing alternative energy sources. While Washington has sold arms and provided military training to the Gulf sheikdoms, they remain largely defenseless--thus necessitating additional deployments of U.S. troops, tanks, artillery and warplanes over the last six years.
Ironically, Hussein was not in violation of any of the U.N. restrictions on troop movements when he invaded the Kurdish north. Rather, he once again found a tiny loophole that gave him a sliver of maneuverability.
Since 1991, he has not been allowed to fly warplanes over the U.S.-protected "no-fly" zone above the 36th parallel. But there is not a "no-drive" zone prohibiting troop movements into Kurdistan, as there has been since 1994 in the southern, Shiite-dominated area where Hussein dispatched troops en route to Kuwait.
The violation in the north is instead over a more general stipulation in U.N. Security Council Resolution 688 that Hussein cannot engage in human rights abuses of his own citizens.