Leading Article: Blair must take care not to fly into a trap

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The Independent Culture
THIS WEEKEND Mr Blair will be in Kuwait to meet the crews of the British Tornados who participated in last month's air attacks against Iraq, and who daily run the risk of attack themselves as they patrol the no-fly zone in southern Iraq. The Prime Minister's spokesman says the visit is not to be seen as a bellicose gesture against Iraq. Mr Blair should be very careful that it does not become one.

Not long ago Mr Clinton was being praised for his "rope-a-dope" tactics of allowing Saddam Hussein to over-reach himself in his obstruction of the UN arms inspectors, and thus provide Washington with the opportunity it sought to launch the air strikes. These days, it is Saddam who is learning a thing or two about rope-a-dope. By drawing US jets (and maybe soon those same Tornados that Mr Blair is about to inspect) into dogfights in what is officially Iraqi sovereign air space, he is seeking to have Britain and the US overreach themselves. Not in a military sense, of course, for Anglo-American air superiority is absolute - but in the subtler sense which explains these almost daily provocations.

Saddam's strategy is to persuade world opinion that London and Washington are the true bullies of the piece, beating up an Iraq already brought to its knees by sanctions. If the tepid reaction to his latest call for a popular uprising against Arab leaders who have failed to support him is anything to go by, the outside world still needs a good deal of persuading.

But that could change. The latest flurry of Iraqi aerial defiance suggests that the damage inflicted by last month's four days of bombardment is a good deal less than that claimed by American and British propaganda. Arab leaders may soon come to recognise the Iraqi President for the scoundrel he is.

But popular reaction in the Gaza Strip and elsewhere shows that on the street, Saddam is not without his sympathisers - and a few more lost air battles may win some more. The no-fly zones are crucial for the containment of Saddam. President Clinton and Mr Blair must not allow them to become the means of an Iraqi public relations victory.