Gulf crisis: Saddam isolated as allies line up

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The Independent Online
IRAQ IS now in its third confrontation in 12 months with the United States-led coalition and closer to becoming the target of air attack than at any time since President Bill Clinton ordered a missile strike in 1996.

The most obvious explanation for the crisis is that President Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi leader, has overplayed his hand. In February, he escaped a much-heralded air assault through a last-minute agreement with Kofi Annan, the United Nations Secretary-General. The Arab world opposed an attack and the Security Council was split.

This time it is President Saddam who is isolated. The line-up against him is similar to that in the days before the prolonged air attack on Iraq in 1991. By ending co-operation with UN weapons inspectors last month, Iraq alienated its potential allies on the Security Council such as France, Russia and China. The Arab world is passive.

The aggressiveness of the Iraqi leader is surprising since he has moved cautiously over the past three years, calculating carefully how far he can go. In 1996, he captured and then immediately withdrew from Arbil, the Kurdish capital, only provoking the US to fire a few missiles at the south of the country.

It may be that President Saddam calculates that an air attack alone, unsupported by ground forces, will do nothing to destabilise his rule. On the contrary, it might do more to destroy the post-Gulf War settlement, under which Iraq's sovereignty is limited by economic sanctions and weapons inspections, than all the diplomatic manoeuvres of France and Russia at the UN. By the same token, President Clinton is loath to order an attack that may undermine a political status quo he wants to preserve.

The lesson of air attacks on Iraq in the past is that they may weaken but do not destroy the authority of the government. In 1991, the allies dropped 88,000 tons of ordnance on Iraq, but it was the break-up of the Iraqi army in the face of ground assault that led to the uprisings in southern Iraq and Kurdistan.

The air assault now planned will be on a lesser scale. It has many limitations. It will mainly be Tomahawk missiles, rather than fixed-wing aircraft because of the fear that pilots would be shot down and captured. These are effective against large fixed targets previously identified by intelligence. In the Gulf War the missiles rapidly destroyed Iraq's civil infrastructure of power stations and oil refineries, halting the economy.

Against the Iraqi military an air war is likely to be less effective. Unlike 1991 the Iraqi army does not have to be in battle formation to face a ground attack. It can easily be dispersed. General Wafiq al-Sammara'i, the former head of Iraqi intelligence who defected, says the Iraqi army lost no officer above the rank of colonel from bombs and missiles during the Gulf War.

Of 2,100 Iraqi tanks lost only 10 per cent were destroyed from the air.

The Iraqi security forces, the heart of the regime, are likely to be least affected by bombing. All Iraqi government institutions have had alternative headquarters since the Iran Iraq war.

The Iraqi leadership has in the past made it a firm rule not to use the deep bunkers in Baghdad whose position is known to the allies. President Saddam spent the Gulf War above ground in suburban villas in Baghdad.

One much-trumpeted target would be facilities that might produce chemical, biological or nuclear weapons. But since the UN Special Committee (Unscom) on eliminating such arms has been unable to locate plants used for such purposes, again no clear target is available. An alternative would be to hit all the buildings in which Unscom has placed surveillance cameras, but this would end all future monitoring.

The allies might get lucky. A missile might hit the Iraqi leader. The Iraqi army might move against him.

Both outcomes are unlikely. At the end of the bombing President Clinton will more probably face all the problems he did at the beginning, but will have used up his threat of an air offensive.