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Confrontation with Iraq: Saddam ensures he is spectre at the feast: The Iraqi leader may be looking in vain for signs of discontinuity in the policy of the US, writes Patrick Cockburn

PRESIDENT Saddam Hussein has probably long intended to bring the Iraqi crisis to the boil at the moment of the inauguration, for two reasons. He wants to ensure that dealing with Iraq is at the top of Bill Clinton's agenda, to show it is a problem that will not go away. Secondly, he wants to emphasise the discontinuity between George Bush and Mr Clinton by adopting a more pacific stance after today.

There are also hints that President Saddam would like to treat the crisis as one in relations between Iraq and the United States rather than Iraq and the United Nations. An example of this came when Nizar Hamdoon, Iraq's UN representative, offered to let a congressional mission visit southern Iraq on a fact-finding mission. When Tariq Aziz, the Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister, visited the UN in November, he adopted a militant stance. When he comes again next month, he is likely to be more conciliatory.

Mr Clinton's recent interview, in which he said he was not 'obsessed' with President Saddam and would judge him by his behaviour, probably made hearts beat faster in Baghdad. But it may not, in the long term, mean anything very specific other than Mr Clinton's instinct that it may not be in his political interests to continue the prolonged cold and occasionally hot war with President Saddam when he wants to get on with his domestic agenda.

There are therefore calls in Washington for a political stance on Iraq to go hand-in-hand with military activity. The problem is that once missile and bomber attacks are used for more than compelling Iraqi compliance with specific UN resolutions, it is difficult to justify them as contributing to the political demise of Saddam Hussein. Some Clinton advisers advocate heavy bomb attacks on the Republican Guard and presidential guard units as a way of hitting at the centre of the Iraqi leader's power. But this is easier said than done, going by experience during the Gulf war.

Another political option would be greater military and political support for the Iraqi Kurd and Shia opposition. But Turkey, Iran and Syria are nervous about the development of a de facto Kurdish state in the three northern provinces of Iraq; they fear the repercussions on their own Kurdish minorities. Saudi Arabia has also been edgy about aid to the Shias of southern Iraq.

Colin Powell, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, has reportedly advocated massive use of force, but it is doubtful if there is a political consensus to resume a bombing campaign approaching the scale of that of 1991. Nor is there a guarantee it would succeed in getting rid of President Saddam. A more acceptable move would be the extension of a no-fly zone to the whole of Iraq. From the US point of view, the most satisfactory policy would be a slow, low-profile siege of Iraq backed up by the use of force which would gradually tighten the squeeze on President Saddam. But it is precisely this situation which the Iraqi leader seems determined to avert by staging small-scale incidents and intermittently provoking showdowns, which may lead to military losses but also underline to the world that he still rules in Baghdad.

For the moment, Mr Clinton and his staff are eager to back away from the president-elect's thoughts of last week about limiting the scope of the confrontation. George Stephanopoulos, Mr Clinton's director of communications, says there is 'no daylight' between Mr Clinton's and Mr Bush's positions, and in the next few weeks the new president will want to show that he will react no less strongly than Mr Bush.

The retention by Mr Clinton for the moment of Dennis Ross, head of policy planning at the State Department, and Edward Djerejian, Assistant Secretary of State, who were key figures in Mr Bush's Middle East policy, does not tell very much about future policy towards Iraq. For the past two years this has been largely controlled by the White House and the National Security Council, while the State Department has been central to Arab-Israeli peace talks.

The retention of Mr Djerejian and Mr Ross does, however, indicate that the Clinton administration will not introduce radically different policies from those of his predecessor.