During the past two weeks he has played a clever hand, opening with a massive bluff. By sending troops to the south, he raised once again the spectre of a new invasion of Kuwait. But among diplomats and United Nations observers in Baghdad there is little doubt that his real intention was to draw attention to the effect of UN sanctions on Iraq, and increase the pressure for a review.
It was a risky bluff, and the United States fell for it by dispatching thousands of troops, aircraft and ships. President Saddam must have foreseen that the US would respond with vigour, and that his venture would be held up by the US and Britain as proof that he is still a threat to the region.
Saddam, however, had other cards to play. He knew that divisions already existed in the UN Security Council over the sanctions issue, forced wider this week by a report from UN weapons inspectors praising his compliance with the eradication of his weapons of mass destruction. At the same time, the effects of sanctions were biting deep, and the world appeared to be unaware.
With his troops in place, he sent invitations to the media, in order to win new sympathy, and began working hard on diplomatic channels. Then, just as US forces were on the move, he withdrew, leaving America's B52 bombers hovering rather pointlessly in the air.
By proclaiming his non-belligerence, Saddam then gave Russia good reason to look for a diplomatic formula. He even expressed new willingness to recognise Kuwait under a sanctions-lifting formula.
Last night, the US appeared to be holding the line at the UN. The signs were that it had successfully set aside a threatened Russian veto and persuaded the Security Council to pass a resolution requiring Iraq to withdraw the remainder of its troops from near the Kuwait border, or face military action from the US coalition forces in the Gulf. The resolution, which was expected to pass with a possible Russian abstention, did not specifically authorise the use of force if Iraq did not withdraw its forces 'to their original positions' before they moved towards the Kuwait border a week ago. However, the US insisted on wording that, in effect, was a clear signal from the international community that it would not tolerate Iraq threatening Kuwait in this manner again. The US considered the resolution justified coalition forces acting to punish Iraq if it did not withdraw its forces, and refused to take seriously indications from Andrei Kozyrev, the Russian Foreign Minister, that Saddam Hussein was now
How long it can hold this position remains to be seen. 'A gross miscalculation by the US,' is how one ambassador in Baghdad described America's tactics over the past two weeks. It is taken as read here that, ever since the Gulf war, the US has been determined to maintain the sanctions in order to neutralise Saddam permanently. Instead, more pressure for lifting the embargo has built up than ever before.
It is alsoaccepted that the US believes sanctions could ultimately bring about a popular uprising or a coup. But four years after the Gulf war, there is reason to believe that Saddam has in fact strengthened his position.
High above Baghdad shines a sparkling space-age telecommunications tower. Built since the Gulf war, it is of course just another huge monument to the splendour of Saddam Hussein. But it is also a symbol of Iraqi pride and of the country's determination to regain its position as one of the most advanced countries in the Middle East. UN sanctions have spread misery among the population. But Iraq is no Somalia. There is chronic malnutrition but little actual starvation.
Yet, despite this collective punishment, there is little reason to believe that the resulting despair could bring about a popular uprising.
Indeed sanctions may have helped Saddam suppress dissent. People have channelled their energies into overcoming the worst effects of sanctions. Just as Saddam has built his new tower, resourceful Iraqis have improvised an economy based on barter and smuggling.
Some aid workers believe that the regime's highly efficient ration system may actually have improved the lot of the poor by giving them a guaranteed supply of basic foods.
The Shia population in the south of Iraq, which rose up after the Gulf war, has in all likelihood been smashed, its people denied access to rations. But in the Iraqi heartland over the past two years the regime has been marginally less repressive than before, indicating a more confident president. Censorship is slightly less rigid.
At a theatre in central Baghdad, for example, a play containing jokes about sanctions, in which government officials are criticised, is currently selling out. More American films are being shown on television. In 1992, Saddam passed a 'political parties act' and is now believed to be considering allowing a puppet political party to be set up.
Most significantly, he has apparently refrained of late from shooting his critics within the government. 'Before it was an every day practice. But now ministers or officials who criticise are simply dismissed,' said an East European ambassador.
While the private loathing of Saddam among Iraqis - particularly the middle classes - is apparent, they are impotent to act. 'Most people I talk to say they would rather die of hunger than be gunned down in the street,' said one international observer. 'I would escape if I could,' said one Iraqi student last week. 'There is nothing for anybody here. But what can we do?'
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