The besieged president is almost immune to coups and is still prepared to gamble on weathering a storm of missiles
WE HAVE been here before. On the eve of the six-week bombing campaign in 1991, Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi leader, began to show last- minute flexibility. He even offered to withdraw from Kuwait. Then the concessions came too late. One diplomat recalls: "The US was not going to offer him a ladder to climb down from the position he had taken up."

Eight years later, President Saddam again has had second thoughts. As the world waited for the bombing to begin, he said he "did not want a crisis". But he will not easily get off the hook. Iraq is isolated. It has alienated potential allies in the UN Security Council and the Middle East. The US and Britain are in a better position to strike than they have been for years. They will look for a complete climbdown by the Iraqi leader.

Saddam has clearly miscalculated. He started escalating the crisis on 5 August when he broke off talks with the UN Special Committee on eliminating Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and stopped all new inspections. On 31 October he ended co-operation with the committee, although he did not expel the inspectors or dismantle the surveillance cameras installed in Iraqi factories.

He seems to have imagined that the US would allow him to dictate the pace of escalation, as it did last February. Then it tried, and publicly failed, to win support for air strikes at home and abroad. Saddam may also have believed, along with most American pundits, that President Clinton was about to suffer a defeat in the mid-term elections.

But the Democrats' success strengthened Mr Clinton's hand and it was the US which suddenly escalated the crisis. All UN personnel were withdrawn from Iraq at American insistence last week and the US immediately turned to the military option. Late in the day, Saddam discovered he had overplayed his hand.

Politically, it would have been easier for the US and Britain to launch air strikes against Iraq than at any time since the last cruise-missile attack in 1996. But fundamental questions still remained for Washington and London. What would the bombing have achieved other than a crude demonstration of military strength? And what would the Allies have done at the end of the bombing if the Iraqi leader had remained alive and and intransigent?

Saddam believes that bombing and missile strikes alone will not destabilise his rule. They were unlikely to be as heavy as the six-week bombardment in 1991. Cruise missiles are most effective for striking big fixed targets like power stations, oil refineries and bridges. This crippled the Iraqi economy eight years ago, but it would have been difficult to target the civilian population so openly today.

No doubt the Allies would have tried to attack elite Iraqi formations like the 20,000-strong Special Presidential Guard and the Republican Guard divisions. This is more difficult than it looks. Cruise missiles and smart bombs are not the best weapons against mobile units. The only effective way to attack these from the air is with low-flying fixed-wing aircraft, but this inevitably means planes shot down and pilots captured. Although it became conventional wisdom after the Gulf War to say that Iraqi anti- aircraft fire was wholly ineffective, it ensured that Allied aircraft flew high over Baghdad after the loss of two aircraft to missiles in the first three days.

The Iraqi army is much weaker today, but Iraq is not simply a military regime. This has enabled the president to hold on to power in the face of economic disaster and intense international pressure. His grip on the army is reinforced by his control of the intelligence agencies, which in the past have been run by members of his family and tribe. The ruling Baath Party is another focus of loyalty to the regime.

Saddam comes from the Bejat clan of the Albu Nasir tribe from the town of Tikrit on the Tigris, a hundred miles north of Baghdad. Several thousand "Tikritis", who know they are likely to share their leader's fate if the regime falls, fill sensitive posts in intelligence, the army and the party. But the Iraqi leader has always been a master of political reinsurance, so real experts balance loyal family members.

These interlocking systems of loyalty make it nearly impossible to stage a coup, despite deep discontent within the Iraqi army. No single commander is allowed to accumulate enough power to send his tanks rolling towards Baghdad. Most military conspiracies are crushed before they get off the ground. It is often impossible to distinguish a real coup attempt from a conspiracy concocted by government agents provocateurs trying to flush out potential traitors.

Iraq, ruined by the consequences of the Kuwait invasion, has lived under siege conditions for eight years. The US opposes lifting sanctions as long as Saddam remains in power. Although he has won tactical victories in the past three years he has, in the words of one American official, "not broken out of the box" into which the Gulf War defeat put him.

Iraq is made up of three communities which detest each other. Saddam belongs to the Sunni Muslims who comprise a fifth of the population and have traditionally ruled the country. The Kurds in the north make up another fifth, while 55 to 60 per cent are Shia Iraqis.

After the Gulf War, the US was fearful of the Shia taking power, believing this would benefit America's arch-enemy Iran, which is ruled by their co-religionists. The US also feared the Iraqi Kurds achieving independence, because it would anger Turkey, with its own Kurdish insurrection, and the Arab states.

The slight improvement in relations between the US and Iran makes the Iranian threat look less menacing to American policy-makers. In September, the US also shifted its position on the Iraqi Kurds. Massoud Barzani, leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, and Jalal al-Talabani, the head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, led a delegation to Washington and received high-level guarantees of US protection against Iraqi attack.

These US policy changes put greater pressure on Saddam Hussein, although until this weekend he appeared to believe that he could sustain even a heavy missile bombardment. Now he has changed tack again. But the US and Britain face the fear that the cease-fire agreement signed with Iraq in 1991 may be sustained only at the cost of international crises every six months.

War will solve nothing -

Samuel Francis, page 28