Saddam 'plotting to blight Bush's election chances'

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PRESIDENT Saddam Hussein of Iraq will seek to avert a confrontation over the air exclusion zone and the United Nations inspections until next month in order to inflict maximum damage on President George Bush's re-election campaign, according to Iraqi opposition leaders. At the weekend Iraq said it would confront the United States 'in due time and with the appropriate methods'.

Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurdish leader who also represents the Iraqi opposition in Washington, says President Saddam will not allow the allied attempt to increase political pressure on him to go unchallenged. This could take the form of an offensive against the Marsh Arabs in the south, the Kurds in the north or the expulsion of the UN from Iraq.

The air exclusion zone will not, by itself, alter the balance of power in the south of Iraq, where the government has 10 to 12 regular divisions and two elite Republican Guard divisions. Since the crushing of the rebellion in the Shia cities in March last year, the secret police have also reasserted their grip.

Mr Zebari says the next stage of the allied campaign against President Saddam should be to introduce a safe haven in the far south, possibly covering Basra, Amara, Zubair, Nasiriyah and Najaf.

This might encourage the defection of Iraqi army units stationed in Shia areas. He says: 'If the plan to protect the Iraqi Shias is to have any effect, it must include a security zone.'

However, it is extremely unlikely that the Iraqi leader would allow the establishment of an extensive safe haven in the south. The loss of control over Basra - with 1 million people the second-largest city in Iraq - would be too great an abdication of authority for President Saddam to survive.

The problem for the US is that almost any pressure to force President Saddam out of power is likely to be ineffective, unless backed by a major commitment of ground troops, which Washington does not want to do. US and British diplomats say the exclusion zone in the south will resemble as closely as possible the exclusion zone established in Kurdistan last year. The difference between the two situations is, however, that President Saddam could afford to abandon Kurdistan temporarily, and the allies - at the time - still had substantial ground forces in the region. But he must hold on to the south of Iraq, because half the Iraqi population is Shia.

A Pentagon official said at the weekend: 'The ball is in Saddam's court.' But the US might choose to provoke a confrontation before October in order to prevent President Saddam from regaining the initiative and choosing the time and place for a new conflict.

NICOSIA - A Kuwaiti security man was killed and two people, including a UN officer from Sweden, were wounded in an exchange of fire between a Kuwaiti patrol and Iraqi infiltrators, the Kuwaiti Kuna news agency said yesterday, Reuter reports.

The Swede, Lt-Col Anders Westberg, a member of the UN Iraq-Kuwait Observeration Mission (Unikom) which monitors a ceasefire on the border, said he was shot in the leg in crossfire between the two sides in the incident on Sunday.