Iraq Crisis: Next move still down to Saddam

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WHEN Saddam Hussein suc-cessfully counter-attacked the Kurds after their uprising in 1991, his troops threw flour from helicopters to give the impression that they were using chemical weapons. The Kurds, remembering how 7,000 people had died in Halabja from inhaling poison gas three years before, fled in panic.

The episode shows the extraordinary difficulty of eliminating Iraq's chemical and biological weapons, since their effectiveness is largely psychological. Such is the terror they induce that they remain potent as a threat, even when they exist in the smallest quantities - or, as in the case of the Kurds, are not being used at all.

UNSCOM - the UN weapons inspectorate - is therefore unlikely to achieve its aim of being able to prove to the world that Saddam has no such weapons left. This can only be done by military occupation. The "free and unfettered access" to Saddam's palaces, granted by the Iraqi leader last weekend, is a less valuable concession than it looks. Only a few warheads, easily concealed anywhere in Iraq, are needed to frighten potential victims. This was underlined by the panic in Israel in the past three weeks, although the Israeli government played down the threat.

The greatest success of Iraq in the crisis of the past month has been to focus international attention exclusively on the question of access to the presidential sites, as if they alone mattered. It is the diplomatic equivalent to Mohammed Ali's "Rope A Dope Strategy". Get your opponent to put his energy into landing punches where they do not hurt you. All Saddam needs is a small arsenal of non-conventional weapons. These are not threatened by the new agreement. The one place these are least likely to be at present is in his palaces.

The Iraqi leader has made other gains. The visit of Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary-General, puts a big dent in the political ostracism of Iraq. Economic sanctions have been partially lifted with Iraqi oil exports to be allowed to rise to $5.2bn (pounds 3.2bn). Iraq is back as a political player in the Middle East.

What ought to have emerged from the crisis - but shows little sign of doing so - is that the activities of UNSCOM are not a good issue on which to fight Saddam. It cannot eliminate the threat of his weapons of mass destruction, because this is largely psychological. Worse, from the point of view of the US and Britain, UNSCOM's inspectors cannot operate without the Iraqi leader's co-operation, and this allows him to switch crises on and off at will. Bombing would not alter this dependence of UNSCOM on Saddam.

In a curious way, UNSCOM itself implicitly recognised several years ago that its pursuit of biological and chemical weapons and the means to deliver them would be fruitless. It therefore expanded its role to investigating the "mechanism of concealment" used to hide them. This mechanism is, essentially, theRepublican Guard and the inner ring of Iraqi security, whose main job is to protect Saddam and the regime itself.

To the Iraqi leader, it must have looked as if UNSCOM was becoming a potential instrument for his own removal. There is a certain logic to this. Only the fall of the regime would eliminate Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. The best chance of achieving this was lost when President Bush, for good reasons, decided not to invade Iraq in 1991. The opportunity is not likely to recur.

The outcome of the present crisis leaves Saddam in a strong position. If the US and Britain had decided to deal with his weapons of mass destruction by deterrence through a strong military alliance with the Gulf states there is not much he could have done about it. Reliance on UNSCOM is, on the contrary, to fight, literally, on his own turf. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair have put the Iraqi leader in charge of the control switch for Middle East and, to some extent, world politics.