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Saddam risks the West's wrath

SIGNS were multiplying yesterday that Saddam Hussein may have taken his brinkmanship with the United States and its Gulf war allies one step too far in repeatedly challenging their authority and that of the United Nations.

There is no doubt in New York and Washington that President Saddam is deliberately tweaking the patience of the coalition allies through a series of calculated challenges to the terms of ceasefire resolutions passed by the UN Security Council since the end of the Gulf conflict.

More than 150 Iraqi personnel again yesterday raided a UN compound across the newly established border with Kuwait and seized equipment left behind there after the war. US intelligence, meanwhile, showed fresh placements of anti-aircraft missiles in no-fly zones in both the north and south of the country.

President Bush conferred with his security advisers yesterday afternoon amid growing indications from the Pentagon that military intervention against President Saddam may be imminent. Allied forces were ready to carry out such action at any time, defence sources indicated.

The renewed raids on the UN compound, in an area that was an Iraqi naval base before the Iraq-Kuwait border was redrawn by a UN commission, came just hours after the Security Council issued a declaration warning Baghdad of 'serious consequences' if any further border incursions occurred.

UN officials pointed out that President Saddam was also refusing to back down from an edict banning all flights into Iraq of UN planes carrying UN personnel charged with monitoring compliance with ceasefire resolutions. About 70 UN officers are waiting to enter the country.

Although there is some confusion over whether Iraq may have had partial authorisation to reclaim equipment from the UN compound, diplomats say it is the combination of all the transgressions that is forcing consideration of military strikes. 'It is no longer a question of judging each individual incident, but of weighing up the accumulation of violations of UN authority,' a senior diplomat commented.

Washington believes that President Saddam has chosen this moment to provoke the US because he calculates its resolve will be weakened in the last days of the Bush presidency. Mr Bush hands over to president-elect Bill Clinton in one week. In Little Rock, however, a spokesman for Mr Clinton again reiterated support for Mr Bush's tough stance. 'It would be unwise of him (Saddam) to taunt Clinton,' the aide said.

US defence officials said latest intelligence showed Baghdad deploying anti- aircraft systems in the northern no-fly zone, north of the 36th parallel. Sources said they were also uncertain of the whereabouts and status of systems in the southern zone, beneath the 32nd parallel.

Last week, the US apparently came to the brink of military action against Iraq over the deployment of missiles in the south. At the weekend, Washington said it was satisfied the systems had been taken out of configurations considered threatening to patrolling US jets.

Russia, which last week joined the US, Britain and France in warning against the deployment of missiles, also warned Baghdad against further provocation yesterday. A Foreign Ministry statement urged President Saddam to 'show a realistic understanding of the complex situation'. It added: 'The situation is too explosive to play with.'

Iraq claims it was authorised by Unikom, the UN group responsible for the demilitarised zone either side of the new Iraq-Kuwait border, to retrieve equipment from the disputed compound by a deadline of 15 January. UN officials in New York, however, said the Iraqis had been told to seek separate authorisation each time they intended to cross the border and to leave behind all military goods.

'None of these three incursions were authorised by the UN,' an official insisted. 'They had no permission to retrieve these things.'