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Mission Is Emblem of Gulf War Coalition's Shakiness

Allies: Some feel that not enough is at stake in 'Desert Strike.' Or they now view Iraq's side more favorably.


WASHINGTON — In the current showdown in Iraq, the United States has spent almost as much energy--and arguably more clout--dealing with its friends as it has with Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. But just how much Washington has to show for its efforts has become one of the most controversial aspects of the Persian Gulf crisis.

Kuwait finally agreed Monday to let a few thousand U.S. troops--even the number was contentious--deploy in the tiny sheikdom. But the four-day delay after the Pentagon announced the deployment was a far cry from the plaintive appeals six years ago for tens of thousands of American troops and anything else Washington was prepared to provide to confront Baghdad.

Although the Clinton administration has secured broad support within the United States for its get-tough policy, the embarrassing Kuwait episode is a microcosm of U.S. problems in dealing with key parties in the former 38-member coalition that fought the 1991 Persian Gulf War. It also reflects fundamental differences between "Operation Desert Storm" and the 1996 sequel launched with "Operation Desert Strike."

For some allies, not enough is at stake this time. For others, the incentives have shifted over the last six years--sometimes in Iraq's favor.

"The old coalition doesn't exist anymore," said James A. Placke, a former U.S. diplomat in Iraq now with Cambridge Energy Research Associates, a Massachusetts-based consulting firm. "But it's somewhat misleading to look at it that way. In each adventure with Saddam, the national interests of each state and the circumstances of the crisis have varied, so it's not surprising that you can't marshal the same team each time."

The Gulf states still view Hussein as a menace. Yet for many of the emirates, the direct dangers are not high enough nor is the proposed U.S. response large enough to make the price of open endorsement of President Clinton's efforts worth the risks, analysts said.

"Neither Kuwaiti nor Saudi Arabian oil was threatened this time," said Judith Kipper, co-director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a nonpartisan defense-monitoring group at Washington's Georgetown University.

After limited U.S. action, Hussein and the problem he represents are still around. The core issue is unresolved. Meanwhile, the suffering of the Iraqi people grows--a plight now bound to worsen with postponement of a U.N. deal allowing Baghdad to sell oil so that it could purchase humanitarian supplies.

As frustration deepens over the U.S. inability to rid Iraq of Hussein, Gulf regimes are ready for something decisive. Yet America's tactics seem to be just more of the same, with no end in sight, analysts said.

"I'm hearing a lot of people say that U.S. policy is not working, and, if we can't get rid of him, then we should adopt a different strategy," said Richard Murphy, a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia who is now at the Council on Foreign Relations and in the Gulf region.

Geoffrey Kemp, a former Reagan administration National Security Council staff member, observed, "In private, the Gulf states wish we'd send B-52s for a week and get it over with."

Each Gulf state also has more significant internal economic, social, political and security problems than it did in 1990. Saudi Arabia has been the site of two terrorist attacks in the last year. And Gulf economies are still recovering from the loss of tens of billions of dollars paid out for the 1991 war and subsequent operations. Backing Washington too publicly or forcefully could produce a domestic backlash, analysts said.

The dilemma is made worse by the issue of sovereignty. Responding to an invasion of another country is one thing. Attacking after troops move within a country at the invitation of a local party--the circumstances in northern Iraq that sparked the current crisis--is another.

"With the exception of Egypt and Oman, Arab states were forged in the 20th century, most after World War II, so there's a deep anxiety about their own frontiers. Most states are worried about the precedents being set here," Murphy said.

For European members of the 1991 coalition, the biggest problem in the current face-off is that U.S. actions have been conducted outside the purview of the United Nations, according to U.S. officials. Some of the European nations are concerned about precedent. Others suffer from power envy.

Each also has an agenda that reflects shifting priorities. France, which provided 16,000 troops and 40 warplanes in the 1991 war, does not want to abandon the coalition. But, for economic reasons, Paris also does not want to anger Iraq.

Over the last two years, the two main French oil companies, Total and Elf Aquitaine, have negotiated production-sharing agreements with Iraq's National Oil Co. for new oil fields discovered but not yet developed in southern Iraq, Placke said. The deals have not been signed, but they are ready for whenever sanctions are eased.

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