Showdown in Iraq: Images of glory deflated by pin-prick tactics: Baghdad sees signs of confusion as Clinton walks into the crossfire of a hot and cold running war; The US View

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The Independent Online
SADDAM HUSSEIN was on US television again last week, his very appearance exposing the contradiction at the heart of America's hot and cold war with Iraq. On the one hand, renewed bombing attacks show that Iraq is militarily defenceless against the allied air forces. On the other, President Saddam is still popping up in his black beret and olive-green outfit on prime-time bulletins to remind the US that, two years after the Gulf war, he still rules in Baghdad.

A second attack on Iraqi SAM anti-aircraft missile batteries, successful or not, will not alter the basic difficulty for George Bush faced last week and for Bill Clinton in the weeks to come. So long as President Saddam personally survives US attacks, the bombing raids are an expression of frustration that do not reduce his control of Iraq. No wonder, according to one source, that the incoming Clinton adminstration pressed for the punitive raids to take place during Mr Bush's last days in office, rather than under the new president's control.

As Mr Bush leaves the White House, there are already signs of Mr Clinton edging away from permanent confrontation with the Iraqi leader. In an interview on the day of the bombing, Mr Clinton said: 'I am not obsessed with the man.' The implication was clearly that here he differed from Mr Bush. Mr Clinton said that, as a Baptist, he believed in death-bed conversions, and if 'Saddam Hussein wants a different relationship with the United States and the United Nations, all he has to do is change his behaviour'.

Within hours of the interview being published, a volley of denials from Little Rock made it plain that the policy of the incoming administration towards Baghdad would differ from that of Mr Bush. Mr Clinton's spokesman, George Stephanopoulos, was soon recorrecting the corrections, saying the president-elect 'inadvertently forgot that he had been asked that specific question about normalisation, and he regrets denying that it was asked'.

All this will make satisfactory reading in Baghdad. For two years, the thrust of US and British policy has been to get rid of President Saddam. At first, the intrusive nuclear inspections, UN guards in white Jeeps and other symbols of Iraq's defeat in Kuwait were used to put pressure on President Saddam in the hope that the army or party would ultimately overthrow him.

But, from the summer of 1991, the Iraqis worked out a system - now nicknamed 'cheat and retreat' - whereby they would contest some UN demand, swear that it could not be granted and, at the last moment, give in. This tactic had the advantage that Iraq could largely determine the issues in dispute, and the publicity for each fracas served only to emphasise that President Saddam was still alive and well and living in Baghdad.

For the Iraqi leader, the events of the last week will have justified his tactics. A series of pin-pricks, such as planting bombs in US relief trucks in December and sending men across the Kuwaiti border to repossess Iraqi Silkworm missiles, have shown that he is still a threat to be taken seriously. Few other world leaders can expect their speeches, incoherent or not, to be carried live by CNN.

Nevertheless, one of the surprises of the past two years has been that President Saddam has survived as leader of Iraq longer than George Bush as President of the US. Mr Clinton would almost certainly not be entering the White House this week if better-established Democrats had thought there was any point in running against a triumphant Mr Bush.

The problem for Mr Bush has been that, by demonising President Saddam before and during the war, he made his intentionally limited aim of reoccupying Kuwait seem like a defeat. It forced the US and Britain to give more support to the Kurds than they had intended, and it made the political and economic aid, given by the US to President Saddam during his war with Iran, difficult to explain in public.

Mr Bush's undoubted achievement in evicting President Saddam from Kuwait also turned into a political liability because the extent of military victory was oversold. The television images of the war were of laser-guided bombs magically striking Iraqi targets. The so-called 'highway of death', where allied planes destroyed a long column of Iraqi vehicles withdrawing from Kuwait, gave the impression that the Iraqi army had been destroyed.

The Pentagon was speaking of 100,000 dead. But, while there was no doubt that the Iraqi army in and around Kuwait had been routed in February 1991, the absence of wounded in Iraqi military hospitals, the small number of dead on the battle field, and reports of US Air Force observers provided cumulatively convincing evidence that the number of military dead did not exceed 20,000, and possibly less than half that.

The fact that his military defeat was less severe than originally supposed was they key reason for President Saddam being able to stay in power, even though his ability to use that power beyond the borders of Iraq is now very limited. It is, therefore, in the interests of the Clinton presidency to be less publicly committed to the overthrow of the government in Baghdad, so that any sign of animation by Iraq will not be seen as a slap in the face.

Ever since the overthrow of the Shah in 1979, Iraq and Iran have played a strange role in US politics, first entangling and then crippling three administrations in a row.

In 1979-80, Jimmy Carter was damaged by his inability to free the US hostages held in the US embassy in Tehran. President Reagan was weakened from 1986 by the revelation that he had tried to swap arms for hostages with Iran and divert the profits to the Nicaraguan Contras. Then the Gulf war first exalted and later weakened the presidency of George Bush.

Given that casualty list, Bill Clinton may want to limit his involvement in the region.

(Photograph omitted)