US hovers on edge of an Iraqi quagmire: As Gulf war antagonists engage in brinkmanship, they know that renewed conflict carries a heavy price

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THE FOURTH confrontation between Iraq and the United States since the Gulf war brought America to the edge of the quagmire of permanent involvement in Iraqi politics which it has tried hard to avoid over the last year.

During the first Gulf crisis President George Bush was careful to define victory as the reconquest of Kuwait, not the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. The argument in favour of using military force today is only valid, from Mr Bush's point of view, if renewed bombing would make President Saddam more conciliatory towards UN inspectors looking for Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

All the evidence is that it would not. Indeed, anything less than the removal of the Iraqi leader would probably look like a setback for Mr Bush. He and his advisers will therefore be extremely relieved if the crisis has been defused, for the moment. A renewed military conflict might, momentarily, rally Americans around the flag but in the long term would serve only to remind them that President Saddam still rules in Baghdad. This would further tarnish Mr Bush's military credentials won in the Gulf war and damage him further in the presidential election.

By agreeing to allow the UN to inspect the Agriculture Ministry Iraq may now have ensured that the US will once again cease to focus on the country. If any foreign policy issue is to play a role in the election, Mr Bush and his Secretary of State, James Baker, would prefer it to be the Arab-Israeli talks that might bring electorally popular results before November.

The pressure points that can be used against President Saddam are limited because they have, mostly, already been used. Economic sanctions could be tightened, but only to a limited degree. Food is exempt from sanctions and the Iraqis' ration system is effective. Iraq has failed to break out of its diplomatic isolation imposed after the invasion of Kuwait. Iran, Turkey, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Syria are still hostile. Baghdad is suspicious of Jordan's King Hussein as he tries to repair relations with the US, bruised by his neutral stance in the Gulf war.

But there is a limit to what these enemies will do against President Saddam. Despite threatening rhetoric, Iran has given only limited support to Shia rebels in the south. Saudi Arabia has given money, but will not allow dissidents to move covertly from its territory to Iraq.

It is only in Kurdistan that President Saddam's position has deteriorated over the past year. In March 1991 his troops had reconquered all the cities and much of the countryside. But, with an allied air umbrella covering the northern Kurdish provinces, the Kurds recaptured some main cities, and by October the last Iraqi troops had retreated from Kurdistan to the plains. With the two top Iraqi Kurdish leaders, Masoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani, due to arrive in Washington today to meet Mr Baker, the temptation will be for the US to increase support for the Kurds.

The rest of the Iraqi opposition, despite reports of an attempted coup last month, has made a poor showing. The only guerrilla activities in the Shia south of the country are in the marshes, where the marsh Arabs are being squeezed by the Iraqi army.

The Western options are therefore very limited. Intrusive UN inspections originally designed to underline Iraqi defeat, have become an exercise in humiliation. The military attack might punish President Saddam for failing to comply with the ceasefire terms, but would not necessarily gain compliance. To be effective, renewed air attacks on the civil and military infrastructure would have to be almost as massive in scale as those staged in January and February of last year. But to launch such an air offensive Mr Bush would need much more support in America, Western Europe and the Arab world than he possesses.

Asked at the UN last night whether Iraq was still a military threat to its neighbours, Rolf Ekeus, the head of the UN special commission on Iraq, said 'more than most' of Iraq's offensive capability had been destroyed, but that there were still problems, 'especially secret research' and information on the country's suppliers of military equipment.

He said Iraq was no longer a military threat to its neighbours. 'They have no capability to exercise any long range warfare, no missile capability, launching capability, no fissile nuclear capability and the chemical capability is under destruction.'

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