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Saddam hangs Bush on horns of a dilemma

AS IF George Bush did not have enough troubles, his stumbling re- election drive this week is complicated by one of the most delicate and charged decisions of his presidency: whether to re-open military hostilities against his vanquished but maddeningly indestructible foe, Saddam Hussein.

In one sense, the minuet under way between Washington and Baghdad is wearily familiar. Once again the Iraqi leader is defying the United Nations. Once again, the White House warns that 'all options are open' and has partly unsheathed the military sabre - in this case by cancelling port visits and shore leave for the Saratoga aircraft-carrier battle group on patrol in the Mediterranean.

And, for at least the fifth time since the Gulf war ended in March 1991, Mr Bush yesterday summoned his top military and national security officials to examine options to force Saddam Hussein to abide by the ceasefire terms and UN resolutions.

On each previous occasion, Saddam Hussein backed down just enough to defuse the crisis. This time, though, there are differences. The challenge is as brazen, and the standoff as tense, as any in the past. And in assessing his response, Mr Bush must weigh up not only considerations of foreign policy, but its unpredictable implications for his re-election.

Outwardly, traditional foreign policy bipartisanship is being preserved, as the Democrat presidential contender, Bill Clinton, yesterday made clear he too would support the use of force by Washington, if the UN deemed it was necessary to impose compliance.

Normally, war is a surefire guarantee of popularity for a US president. Mr Bush's approval ratings soared to 80 per cent after the Panama invasion in 1989, and higher still after Operation Desert Storm. Now, however, his greatest achievement is all but forgotten as his popularity has nosedived to under 40 per cent and the country's attention is riveted on its domestic economic problems.

If he attacks now, Mr Bush will be hard pressed to demonstrate the 'vital national interests' which he used to justify the Gulf war. Instead, he could easily find himself accused of naked political opportunism. The boost to his ratings, even Republican strategists concede, would probably be small and ephemeral at best. The anti- Bush bumper sticker to be seen around the US right now sums up his quandary: 'Saddam Hussein still has a job. Do you?'

If, moreover, he does authorise military action, the President still has to decide: How much? There is no sign the US has made the intelligence breakthrough that would permit an attack pinpointing the Iraqi leader himself: the alternatives are a limited punitive strike which would change none of the fundamentals, or the major assault that the Pentagon, when faced with earlier standoffs since March 1991, has always opposed.

And bipartisanship almost certainly has its limits. While the Democrats will back a new UN- sanctioned strike, they might be less unequivocal if Mr Bush decided to go it alone, or with the sole backing of countries like Britain and France.

But inaction carries almost equal risks. Mr Bush's stature as a world leader, his strongest re-election card, could be diminished. The hope here is that this argument will carry the day with Saddam Hussein, as close a watcher of US domestic politics as anyone, and that once again he will pull back from the brink.

(Photograph omitted)