Cracks show in Clinton strategy

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The Independent Online
The capture by pro-Baghdad forces of the Kurdish city of Sulaymaniyah, following the apparent dismemberment of two dissident Iraqi groups backed by the CIA, have dealt heavy blows to the Clinton administration's strategy in Iraq and could turn its handling of Saddam Hussein into a significant issue in the presidential campaign.

The Iraqi National Accord and the Iraqi National Congress have been largely broken up, the first when 100 INA activists opposed to President Saddam were executed earlier this year, the second with the seizure 10 days ago of Arbil, where the INC had been based. The Washington Post said 200 INC members had fled to the mountain town of Salahuddin, appealing to their erstwhile US protectors to rescue them from President Saddam's revenge.

Yesterday US officials said some Iraqis who had collaborated with the CIA had been flown out of the country. But the main focus is on Iraqis working for the UN's Operation Provide Comfort mission. Administration spokesmen do not rule out more reprisals against Baghdad, after the cruise- missile strikes in southern Iraq last week. That likelihood has grown following claims by the Pentagon that the Iraqis are rebuilding some air-defence installations destroyed in the attacks.

But the Kurds in the north are being left to their own devices, at least until they patch up their internal divisions. Failing such reconciliation, Mr Clinton made clear, the US will not involve itself directly there.

Mr Clinton's Republican challenger, Bob Dole, has shied away from front- on criticism of the President, even though he trails far behind Mr Clinton in the polls and foreign policy is one of Mr Dole's perceived strengths. But he is edging closer, with a statement suggesting US interests had suffered in the region, and warning his opponent to "be careful" about claiming unwarranted victories and "giving assurances it is unable or unwilling to fulfil".

The White House accused Mr Dole of playing politics with an international crisis. But that argument could lose force now President Saddam is in firmer control of Kurdish Iraq than at any time since 1991. And public pressures for direct US intervention could grow if his victories produce a repeat of events of that year, when hundreds of thousands of Kurdish refugees fled in the wake of a failed uprising after the Gulf war - all live on US television.