On the streets of Washington, D.C., apparently, Saddam Hussein’s latest challenge to the West is viewed as a glaringly foolish move, a myopic and misguided confrontation with the world’s greatest superpower.
Top U.S. officials have repeatedly ridiculed the Iraqi leader, comparing him to an Arab bazaar merchant and suggesting that irrationality has led him into a giant foreign policy blunder.
“It’s just literally impossible to imagine what goes into such a convoluted and tortured mind,” White House spokesman Mike McCurry said earlier this week.
While Saddam may be a brutal and irresponsible dictator, his latest provocation may be a carefully calculated gamble. By threatening to throw American arms inspectors out of Iraq, he could boost his popularity at home while driving a wedge into the fraying gulf war coalition.
“It’s a fairly high-stakes gamble,” said Kenneth M. Pollack, a Persian Gulf military analyst with with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Whether he’s going to succeed is still very much up in the air.”
Saddam’s latest move comes against the backdrop of the stiff international sanctions imposed on Iraq after the Gulf War in 1991 - including a near total embargo on the sale of its oil. The result, by nearly all accounts, has been intense suffering for the Iraqi people: The sanctions have bankrupted the country, caused the death of an estimated 1 million people annually and have driven up malnutrition, infant mortality and illiteracy, among other things.
One purpose of the sanctions was to isolate Saddam and weaken his stature among his people, but that has not come to pass, by most accounts. Instead of blaming Saddam for their troubles, many Iraqis blame the West, and the United States in particular. Interviews on the streets of Baghdad suggest that each time Saddam strikes back, by challenging the authority of outsiders to tell him how to run his country, he gains in stature among Iraqis.
In recent months, Iraq has challenged the West on several occasions. In September 1996, for instance, Iraqi army forces marched into the Kurdish-controlled city of Irbil, which was supposedly under Western protection. In April of this year, a planeload of Muslim pilgrims flew from Baghdad to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, in direct violation of the U.N. ban on all flights to from Iraq. Last week’s threat against the Americans working for the United Nations was another in a line of challenges, designed by Saddam to also see just how far he can go before he gets slapped back.
“I don’t think there’s much mystery to his motivations. As long as he’s there, he’ll be challenging us,” said Phebe Marr, a professor at the government’s National Defense University at Fort Leslie J. McNair in Washington. “He wants a revision to the status quo, an end to the sanctions - and he wants them on his own terms.”
What he also is trying to do, according to numerous experts on Iraq, is further divide the multinational coalition that fought the gulf war and imposed the sanctions. Although the United States has declared its determination to maintain tough sanctions, the Iraqi leader knows that several of the United States’ closest allies are eager to rethink the sanctions.
The chief reason, by most accounts, is money. Iraq has the second largest proven oil reserves in the Persian Gulf, with at least 100 billion barrels waiting to be unearthed, maybe more.
Saddam clearly hopes to create a situation in which the United States will feel obliged to respond militarily - but its allies will not agree to go along with such a response. The big question is whether Saddam has overplayed his hand - whether by threatening to shoot down American U-2 spy planes and end his dealings with the U.N. arms monitors in Baghdad, he has gone so far that he will actually re-form the coalition.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: THE SADDAM SHUFFLE Iraq may be using the halt in U.N. searches for hidden weapons to move equipment that could be used to produce forbidden missiles out of range of U.N. surveillance cameras , the chief of U.N. weapons inspectors said Wednesday. Richard Butler, the Australian diplomat who heads the U.N. Special Commission (UNSCOM) charged with eliminating Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, notified the Security Council that even as a U.N. diplomatic mission was beginning delicate talks in Baghdad, Iraqi authorities apparently have moved “significant pieces of dual-capable equipment, subject to monitoring by the commission’s remote camera monitoring system, out of view.” From wire reports