Desperate Saddam takes on the world: The Iraqi leader's latest crisis is a rash attempt to attract attention to his country's plight, writes Robert Block

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The Independent Online
SADDAM HUSSEIN is a man who defies convention. By embracing apparent self- destruction, defying international demands and attacking his own people, the Iraqi President is both incomprehensible and repulsive to the West. But, the one rule he has always lived by is that when the going gets tough at home, take on the whole world.

This time the stakes involved in his showdown with the international community have less to do with Kuwait than with the sanctions that the United Nations imposed against Iraq after the Gulf war. By sending 64,000 troops and hundreds of tanks towards Kuwait's border, what President Saddam seemed to do was to send a message to the world: 'I am still here, and unless you ease sanctions I can keep the Gulf in a state of permanent crisis.'

However, the game of geopolitical poker that President Saddam has embarked upon smacks of desperation. Four years of sanctions have sent Iraq's annual inflation rate soaring upwards of 1,000 per cent, deprived its industry of crucial parts and subjected the average household to severe shortages of basic necessities. Earlier this month, Baghdad reportedly halved the monthly rations of rice, sugar, cooking oil and flour.

The average salary of a government employee is pitifully low. A doctor earns less than the equivalent of pounds 1 a month - the price of a black market chicken. Even high-ranking Iraqi army officers are unhappy, although with a take- home pay of pounds 10 per month, military men are envied.

The deprivation has reportedly spawned an unprecedented wave of dog-eat-dog criminality. Members of President Saddam's powerful minority Takriti clan have taken part, killing owners of lucrative enterprises they want for themselves, according to Iraqi dissident sources.

The hardships have also apparently led to waves of unrest and desertions in the army. The extent of the problem became clear on 25 August, when the government announced that army deserters, or anyone found sheltering them, would lose an ear. Military officals who have joined the opposition report that thousands of amputations have been carried out.

Coup attempts by disaffected officers have also been reported. A prominent Iraqi exile, Saad Jabr, spoke of the President's paranoia about the loyalty of the army and said that by moving units of the Republican Guard to the border he was lessening the risk of them being involved in any possible insurrection, as well as pressuring the West.

'Throughout his rule, Saddam Hussein (has) always tried to hit three or four birds with one stone. In sending them he decreases the danger of having them around and has increased pressure on Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Nations to lift economic sanctions on his country,' Mr Jabr said.

Over the past few months, Iraq has made overtures to Israel, talked in conciliatory tones about its neighbours, invited foreign oil companies to negotiate provisional contracts on attractive terms and complied with at least one UN resolution by allowing international inspectors to dismantle weapons of mass destruction and monitor Iraq's weapons programmes. However, the President remains intransigent on other UN resolutions, including payment of war reparations, recognising Kuwait's sovereignty and halting persecution of his own people.

The timing of the Iraqi troop build-up was no coincidence. Rolf Ekeus, who heads the UN Special Commission on Iraq, is due to report today to the Security Council on Baghdad's compliance with long-term weapons monitoring. Iraq insists the report must confirm it has carried out UN resolution 687, that monitoring is now operational and that a trial period of no more than six months must be followed by a lifting of the embargo.

Last night, Iraq's Foreign Minister, Mohamed Saeed al-Sahaf, said: 'Iraq still hopes that the political and diplomatic efforts, especially those by Russia, France and China, . . . would lead to a definite and decisive outcome to lift the unfair embargo on our people.' The three Security Council members are keen to have the sanctions lifted because they are hoping to resume trade. But Resolution 687 is very much an American document.

The US position has always been that once sanctions are lifted and President Saddam is again allowed to sell oil, it will be impossible to control him. The President seems to be showing the world that even with sanctions in place it is hard to control him. If he feels he has nothing to lose, he could play a wild card.