Saddam is back] But CNN will be there before him

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First Edition

JUST WHEN you thought it was safe to go back into the waters of the Gulf . . . he's back. Or so we are led to believe. 'De-fanged,' the news magazines said of Saddam Hussein in 1991: his army routed, his troops in disarray, his Republican Guards decimated by US bombing, his air force annihilated, Saddam's own downfall merely a matter of time.

Remember what we were told three years ago? And after being assured by our leaders that Saddam had been totally defeated in Part 2 of the Gulf war - after he beat Iran in Part 1 - we are now supposedly faced with Gulf War Part 3.

Or are we? Saddam now has 60,000 troops in southern Iraq, 900 tanks and even more armoured vehicles. Like ghosts, the 'decimated' Republican Guard divisions have returned to haunt the battlefields above Mutla Ridge, the infamous 'highway of death', which was intended to put paid to Saddam's arrogance forever.

As for those television crews and reporters for the satellite channels - who insisted three years ago that Saddam was finished - they were yesterday bombarding Middle Eastern capitals with visa requests and booking themselves on to any aircraft that could reach the Gulf faster than President Bill Clinton's carrier group. Were they manipulating us or falling into the trap of believing their own reports?

The truth is that Saddam's army is playing a theatrical role just now, as necessary for Baghdad as it may be for Washington and even for Kuwait (not to mention CNN). For if the West believes that a new crisis threatens the Middle East, inhabitants of the region are taking a slightly more cynical view of events. 'Saddam wants to force the UN Security Council to lift its sanctions, Clinton wants to distract attention from Haiti and Bosnia before congressional elections, and Kuwait needs to remind the world of its promises of protection,' a Gulf journalist remarked yesterday, not bothering to smother the laughter. 'And don't forget that Ekeus is supposed to produce his report next week.'

Rolf Ekeus, the UN's special commissioner for Iraqi disarmament - and a good friend of the US - has already completed his report for the UN, which, it is believed, will state that Iraq has complied with all UN demands except an acknowledgement of the new UN-devised Kuwait-Iraq border. Will Saddam's failure to recognise the frontier be sufficient for the continuation of sanctions - especially when Turkey, Russia and France wish to lift them?

Instead of talking about this critical point, Mr Clinton - he who huffed and puffed about bombing the Serbs and lifting the arms embargo against the Bosnian Muslims - has been huffing and puffing about the 'seriousness' with which he now regards the Iraqi troop movements. Kuwait has been broadcasting reminders of its 10-year defence guarantees with the West, while Saudi Arabia looks on with relish.

Lifting UN sanctions would restart the flow of Iraqi crude, drastically lower the price of a barrel of oil and thus substantially reduce Saudi Arabia's profits when it still needs to recoup the 13.6bn that it spent on Gulf War Part 2.

All of which Saddam understands - though there was the little matter of another rumoured coup attempt three days ago. According to the saner voices in the Iraqi opposition, Saddam executed a senior general last week, the commander of an army division north of Baghdad, and, to preoccupy the unit's junior officers, reportedly packed the entire division off to southern Iraq along with its artillery, canteens, ambulances, armour, communications and portable latrines. Could it be one more routine purge, then, that has set in motion our pre-programmed response to Gulf War Part 3?