UN-Iraq: who gained most?: Saddam and US claim victory

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The Independent Online
FOR ALL the headlines about Iraq capitulating by allowing UN inspectors to enter the Agriculture Ministry in Baghdad, Saddam Hussein has not emerged defeated in the latest crisis in relations between Iraq and the West.

By forcing the UN to threaten war to get access to the building, the Iraqi leader achieved his aim of showing he is still in business and cannot be pushed around.

But, in the short term at least, it is George Bush who has made greater gains. He can now turn to the Arab-Israeli dispute, and hope for some progress in talks next month. The risks of armed confrontation were enormous. One of Mr Bush's advisers spelt this out: 'To engage in a military move now is a ridiculously high- risk move, and there are half a dozen reasons why. You remind voters the job was not done and Saddam is still there; you risk US prisoners-of- war and deaths with no guarantee of any success other than the bombing itself; you open yourself to being accused of resuming a war for political reasons. The minuses far outweigh the potential pluses.'

But if the US and its allies do not dare fight a limited war with Iraq, then their ability to squeeze President Saddam is limited. Recognising this, Baghdad has moved to liquidate the final resistance by Shia guerrillas in southern Iraq. In Kurdistan, Iraqi intelligence has sought to destabilise the newly elected administration by assassinations and car bombs. It is these developments that really determine the shape of the political future of Iraq, not theatrical confrontations in the car park of the Agriculture Ministry.

The latest crisis was the fourth since the ceasefire at the end of the Gulf war. Each has ended with a minor tactical retreat by Iraq, hailed as a victory by the foreign media, but in fact demonstrating how little leverage the allies have over Iraqi policy. Eighteen months ago the issue was whether or not allied armoured divisions would advance on Baghdad. Today, Mr Bush tries to persuade President Saddam to allow 16 UN inspectors to enter the Agriculture Ministry's lobby. President Saddam may have failings as a grand-strategist, but in manoeuvrings over the UN right to locate and destroy weapons of mass destruction he has shown a great deal of skill in balancing between defiance and conciliation. With each round his confidence and strength is a little greater. If nothing else, by dominating the US media coverage over the last week, he has shown that he is still an important player in the Middle East.

The mission of the UN inspectors to search out and destroy Iraq's weapons of mass destruction also diverts attention from the degree to which the Iraqi army has been reconstituted since defeat in Kuwait. Its current strength is probably about 500,000 men and 2,000 tanks.

The danger from Iraq's point of view is that President Saddam is most skilful when facing disaster. His weakness is a tendency - when his strength is growing - to overplay his hand, giving his opponents no option but to respond with force.

(Photograph omitted)