Saddam casts his shadow over fate of US presidents

Clinton may want to avoid escalating the crisis, but he must show strength of will, and the Iraqi leader may overplay his hand, reports Patrick Cockburn in Arbil
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It is Saddam Hussein's second American election. Last time round, his defeat in the Gulf war ensured that Bill Clinton won the Democratic nomination by frightening off other Democratic candidates who thought George Bush, fresh from victory in Kuwait, was bound to be re-elected. President Bush thought so too, and his over-confidence contributed to his defeat at the polls four years ago.

In 1996 President Clinton is ahead in his conflict with Saddam Hussein in so far as it affects the US election. Firing missiles at southern Iraq is a harmless way of signalling displeasure, since no Americans and few Iraqis are likely to be killed. The problem with the build-up of US military strength over the past week - 5,000 extra American troops began arriving in Kuwait yesterday, although Washington insists the military exercises in which they are to take part were planned some time ago - is that the F-16s and Stealth aircraft are unlikely to produce any more effect than the first missile salvoes.

So far President Clinton has given first priority to sending a message to US voters that he has the strength of will to combat the Iraqi leader. In fact the missile attacks on southern Iraq - after Iraqi tanks had fought their way into Arbil in northern Iraq - sent a very different message to Iraqis and Kurds. One Iraqi commentator, who did not want to be named, says that the forces of Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the defeated party in the Kurdish civil war, began "to disintegrate when they realised that the American missiles were landing 600 miles from the battlefield. They knew they were on their own."

Mr Clinton has been lucky in his critics. There is a case against his conduct of foreign policy towards Iraq since he was elected, but not one that Bob Dole shows any signs of making. From the moment the President adopted the policy of so-called "double containment" towards Iran and Iraq in 1993, the pressure to get rid of Saddam Hussein was reduced. Iran moved back into the centre of American demonology. In the months before Israel's Labour government lost the election in May, it appeared to be moving, along with the US, towards a military strike against Iranian nuclear power facilities. In effect the US felt able to live with "a weak Saddam".

This worked well enough until the middle of this year, when the US State Department underestimated the impact of a new round in the Kurdish civil war, which started in 1994. The Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) may exaggerate the degree of Iranian intervention on behalf of their PUK rivals, but it was there. The State Department - Iraqi policy is largely in the hands of Robert Pelletreau, Assistant Secretary of State for the Near East, and Robert Deutsch of the office for Northern Gulf Affairs - miscalculated the seriousness of the situation and the willingness of the KDP to turn to Baghdad.

An explanation for this failure is that after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister, Washington was wholly absorbed in trying to keep Labour in power and peace talks continuing. Warren Christopher, the US Secretary of State, visited Damascus 20 times in four years in vain pursuit of a deal between Syria and Israel.

But, almost accidentally, President Clinton is not coming badly out of the latest confrontation with Iraq. Baghdad says it will fire no more anti-aircraft missiles, and the fact that Massoud Barzani appears to have conclusively won the civil war will stabilise Kurdistan. With the power vacuum in northern Iraq being largely filled by the KDP, it will be more difficult for Iran and Turkey to intervene.

Nor should the threatening words in Washington about giving less priority to the Kurds be taken too seriously. They were given little attention before - they complain that their letters to the Clinton administration went unanswered - but despite its talk of concentrating on protection of the Gulf states, the US dare not abandon the Kurds completely to Saddam.

In the past week the KDP has almost been falling over itself to emphasise how independent it is of Baghdad. "The Iraqi regime has no authority and no influence in the region of Kurdistan," Sami Abd al-Rahman, a senior adviser to Massoud Barzani, said in Salahudin, the KDP headquarters. He called for the Western allies' Military Co-ordination Centre at Zakho, which organises the air protection zone over Kurdistan, to return. There are also signs on the ground of the KDP trying to limit Iraqi penetration.

At Shumail, a checkpoint on the road to Mosul in northern Iraq, the KDP commander, Maki Ruri, said that ever since Saddam had lifted the embargo on Kurdistan, people from Iraq had been trying to go north. "We have stopped over 100 of them because they may be connected with Iraqi intelligence. The alliance with Saddam is over." To underline his point he turned back an Iraqi from Mosul, Hashem Salem, driving a battered red car to take his Kurdish wife to visit her relatives in the Kurdish city of Dohuk

Sami Abd al-Rahman tries to argue that the tactical alliance with Iraq lasted just for one day, but ordinary Kurds do not believe it. In Arbil a former PUK fighter said: "Iraqis are still here in the marketplace, dressed in Kurdish uniform." There is no evidence for this, but there is no doubt that Kurds are deeply frightened that a precedent has been set and Saddam's influence will grow. They have also noted that the allied no-fly zone did not stop Iraq using its tanks.

If Saddam is satisfied that he has done well out of his intervention in Arbil, then the crisis could quickly subside. He has shown that his army is still a potent force, inflicted a defeat on Iran and stopped Iraqi opposition groups, like the Iraqi National Congress, using Kurdistan as a refuge.

Yet the lessons of the last 20 years - during the invasion of Iran in 1980 and Kuwait in 1990 - is that the Iraqi leader tends to overplay his hand. The crisis in Kurdistan may not be the last intervention by Iraq in the US presidential election of 1996.