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How the heroine of 1985 took the rap for Gulf war

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Golda Meir and Margaret Thatcher are women who have gone to war. A woman, in the person of Helen of Troy, has been the prize in a war. But April Glaspie, long and distinguished servant of the US State Department, has a probably unique distinction. She must be the only woman accused (quite unjustly) of bringing about a war by her own incompetence.

April Glaspie? Why should anyone be concerned with an unassuming, somewhat austere woman in her early fifties, who since January has been running operations of the UN's Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees in the West Bank? But four years ago, in the immediate aftermath of the Gulf War, it was quite otherwise.

The US-led coalition had routed Iraq, but burning questions remained - most notably whether Washington had inadvertently given President Saddam Hussein the green light to invade Kuwait. And for a week or two, culminating in her appearances before hearings that were a Capitol Hill version of the OJ Simpson trial, Ms Glaspie, the last US ambassador to Baghdad, was one of the most famous people in America.

All revolved around her meeting with President Saddam on 25 July 1990, when Iraqi armour was massing near the frontier with Kuwait. According to an Iraqi transcript, she told her host that Washington had "no opinion on Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait". The US, it could be construed, wouldn't be too upset if Baghdad took matters into its own hands.

Now, that anyone should believe an Iraqi transcript of anything beggars the imagination. But some people, in their eagerness to prove the Bush administration had cozied up with Iraq before August 1990, were ready to swallow this one. Cool and dignified, Ms Glaspie performed impressively at the hearings, as she denounced the text as "a fabrication and disinformation". Even that, however, did not clear the air. After her trial by television was over, Ms Glaspie retreated to Californian obscurity, as ambassador- in-residence at a San Diego University. Only in 1993 did she return to active duty at State's Bureau of African Affairs. There she came in for more controversy as political adviser to Admiral Jonathan Howe, the American who largely ran the ill-fated UN humanitarian mission in Somalia. If she had ever been soft on Saddam, she most certainly was not so on the warlord Mohammed Aideed. In doing so, critics say, she helped provoke his hostility to the UN, with disastrous consequences.

In fact, April Glaspie is anything but a bungler. Among the State Department's leading Middle Eastern experts, she was the first woman to serve as US ambassador to an Arab country when she went to Baghdad in 1987. Earlier she was at the US mission in Damascus, where the Secretary of State, George Shultz, called her a "heroine" for her work in securing the release of 104 Americans held hostage on TWA flight 847 in 1985.

Her great mistake, made by so many others, was to believe that Saddam Hussein behaves rationally. Five days after that 25 July meeting, she went on holiday. On 2 August she was to learn that his tanks were in Kuwait. Today she is back in the Middle East. But she is understood to have no plans for a sentimental journey to Baghdad.