U.S. Strike At Saddam Backfires

They have been portrayed in the United States as a successful show of force by President Clinton. But this week’s U.S. military strikes against Iraq look quite the opposite in the Middle East: They have confirmed and strengthened Saddam Hussein’s grip on power while dealing a blow to long-range U.S. interests.

Analysts say that aside from damage inflicted on Iraqi air defense systems and the grounding of little-used Iraqi aircraft, the U.S. action to punish the Iraqi president for his incursion into Kurdish territories achieved little militarily. And, the analysts contend, the episode will significantly weaken the 5-year-old U.S. policy of isolating and containing the Iraqi dictator after his defeat in the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

In the wake of the attacks:

Middle Eastern countries now speak more urgently about the need to re-establish diplomatic relations with Baghdad and bring Iraq back into the Arab fold, even with Saddam still in control. An Arab consensus is forming that Iraq is no longer a military threat and that it has been humiliated enough by the United States.

The Iraqi army’s right to operate in Kurdish areas in the north of the country has been acknowledged and even welcomed by Iraq’s neighbors and endorsed by countries such as France, Russia and China.

An important Kurdish faction has joined hands with Saddam’s regime in a partnership that would have been unimaginable after the Gulf War. Meanwhile, Kurdish factional fighting shows no sign of stopping.

The governments of the U.S. chief Arab allies - Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt - already facing internal opposition, find themselves embarrassed and on the defensive.

In fact, and perhaps worst of all from a U.S. standpoint, the strikes have not accelerated the downfall of Saddam but rather appear to have increased his status and popularity amid rising anti-American emotions.

“Saddam has won more this time,” said Radwan Abdullah, chairman of political science at the University of Jordan, echoing a conclusion that was being drawn across the Middle East as the latest Iraqi crisis appeared to wind down.

Since the Persian Gulf War, the United States has spearheaded tough sanctions against Iraq and has cracked down with cruise missiles to keep the Iraqi dictator in line. U.S. policy-makers, meanwhile, hoped for a coup that would bring about a new regime.

But Saddam has survived every attempt, reportedly filling prisons and executing suspects by the hundreds whenever he gets wind of a plot. The Iraqi people - preoccupied with their own survival in a crippled economy and living in fear of the ubiquitous and multiple secret police forces - are helpless to complain.

In this context, the occasional U.S. military attack does not affect Saddam’s hold on power, Abdullah said. Indeed, the attacks tend to build up the Iraqi leader’s preferred image as an Arab hero who fought the whole world, survived and still refuses to kneel.

While the scattered criticism of Clinton in the United States has been that his response was too feeble - former Secretary of State Al Haig Jr. called it “cheap in the near term but … costly to American credibility on the long term” - Arab critics instead saw it as being gratuitous, a purposeless display of superiority against an already beaten foe.

“Americans should snap out of this fantasy world” if they consider the latest intervention a victory, said Rami Khouri, a Jordanian commentator. “Hollywood is fine for the United States, but we have to live in the real world.”

Khouri said he sees only a continuing dynamic of more challenges from the Iraqi dictator and more violence from the United States.

Fear of Iraq has been supplanted by fear of the United States in many Arab states, wrote Jihad Khazen, editor in chief of the Saudi-owned, London-published newspaper Al Hayat.

While most Americans see their Iraqi policy as justified because it is aimed at Saddam, typical Iraqis have a different view - they see the measures as punitive against Iraq as a whole, said Ibrahim Ezzidin, a former Jordanian information minister.

“You cannot justify five years of sanctions by saying this is because of one guy,” he said. “After all, he (Saddam) is not being hurt - he is living like Genghis Khan. Very simply, it is the Iraqi people who are paying the price.”

“Sympathy for the Iraqi people is mounting in all the countries,” Ezzidin said, “and you just cannot ignore it anymore.”

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