The 70-hour war: Now Saddam breathes easy again

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"I BELIEVE he will die of natural causes," said an Iraqi in Baghdad. No need to ask the identity of the "he" to whom he referred.

Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi leader, has survived the three-day air assault by the United States and Britain with little sign that his regime is politically weaker. In addition, one senior diplomat in Baghdad said yesterday, "Iraq is in a better position diplomatically than it was before."

It was a perfect military operation - missiles decapitated tall buildings in Baghdad with almost unerring accuracy. But the political plan behind the bombardment is more difficult to detect.

Ostensibly, it was to do with "degrading" Iraq's capacity to produce chemical and biological weapons and the means to deliver them. But Iraq had a large arsenal of such weapons in the 1991 Gulf War and did not use them because it was prevented from doing so by allied military superiority and the threat of retaliation. Iraq is unlikely to consider using them now.

Even if the worst-case suspicions of Unscom (the United Nations special committee in charge of eliminating such weapons) are correct, Iraq has only a limited quantity left. The real cutting edge of containment for Washington and London is sanctions and, with the Gulf War coalition more fractured than ever after the American and British action, these will be increasingly difficult to maintain.

It all started with an Iraqi diplomatic miscalculation. Baghdad had hoped to keep the political water hot - but not boiling. In February, the Iraqis achieved a psychological victory when Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary-General, flew to Baghdad, met with Saddam Hussein and averted an allied air attack at the last minute.

Baghdad seems to have interpreted this as a sign of weakness. It thought that if it kept pushing it could marginalise Unscom and get a general review of sanctions and Unscom's activities. On 5 August, Iraq broke off negotiations with Richard Butler, the head of Unscom. On 31 October it ended all fresh inspections.

When Iraq suddenly found itself diplomatically isolated, it opened the way for military action. A foreign source in Baghdad said yesterday: "There is no doubt that the Iraqi leadership was shocked by what happened. They were practising brinkmanship and suddenly they found they had stepped over the brink."

But it turned out better than they expected. The three days of strikes was nothing like the prolonged pounding of the six-week air war in 1991. Above all, the power stations and refineries, with the exception of one in Basra, were not hit.

This was a strange conflict. The most significant technology involved was cruise missiles, Smart bombs - and the massed ranks of foreign television cameras on the roof of the Iraqi Ministry of Information. This gave the impression of a far more extensive war than was in fact being waged. It also limited the extent to which the allies could risk civilian casualties; one strike on a market place and the dead and wounded would be shown within seconds on television screens across the world.

Iraq's Deputy Prime Minister, Tariq Aziz, said yesterday that 62 soldiers were killed and 180 injured in the air strikes. This was the first official death toll from the punishing assault. Mr Aziz said civilian casualties were "much, much higher than military casualties", but refused to elaborate.

But, however accurate the missiles, accuracy counts for nothing without intelligence about what to hit. Most of the big buildings in Iraq were evacuated weeks ago. The same may be true of machine tools from plants. One resident of Baghdad who wanted to get a new number plate for a car stamped was told to come back after the bombing because the necessary piece of simple machinery had been "dispersed".

The same is true of the infrastructure which sustains the regime. It consists not of buildings but personnel, and these are mobile. At the lowest level this was evident on the streets of Baghdad over the last week. Standing on some street corners, armed militias of the ruling Baath party were clutching their guns. Others, more discreet, concealed their sub-machine guns from the former Yugoslavia under their coats.

In order to be able to react immediately to any sign of an uprising, President Saddam divided Iraq into military districts, each placed under a trusted lieutenant. Ali Hassan al- Majid, a cousin of the Iraqi leader, was in charge of the south; he confirmed his reputation for ruthlessness by using chemical weapons against the Kurds in 1988. Izzat Ibrahim al- Dhouri, the Vice-President, was put in charge of the northern areas facing Kurdistan. Another leader known for his loyalty took charge of the mid- Euphrates region containing Kerbala and Najaf and the holy cities of the Iraqi Shia Muslims, which are always the centre of dissent.

All the new appointments were of men who had played leading roles in crushing the great rebellions of the Shias and the Kurds in 1991.

Most pieces on the Iraqi military chessboard are unchanged by the missile war. Television around the world was impressed by the ferocity of the assault. Many Iraqis and the governments of neighbouring countries, on the contrary, notice its limitations in time and target list.

The only part of Iraq outside the control of the Iraqi government is most of Kurdistan in the north. This was a safe haven for the Iraqi opposition before Saddam Hussein took its capital, Arbil, with his tanks in 1996. Seeing the Iraqi leader still firmly in power after the attack, the Kurds are unlikely to risk another incursion by allowing the opposition to return.

For seven years, containment of Iraq consisted of sanctions justified by Iraqi resistance to Unscom inspections. This containment required international consensus. Some diplomats in Baghdad believe that consensus is now broken. The factories that Unscom was monitoring have been destroyed. Since it is claiming a victory, Baghdad is unlikely to allow the inspectors back in without getting sanctions lifted in return.

Yesterday, Mr Aziz declared that the UN weapons inspection program was over. "Iraq cannot tolerate the embargo and Unscom. We did not damage our relations with the United Nations. They [the US and Britain] damaged the United Nations itself," he said. "They killed Unscom. Unscom is their casualty," he said.