US unease lingers after deadline: As the White House tries to decipher the motives behind Baghdad's defiance, lessons are being drawn from the outcome of the Gulf war

AT FIRST glance it could be another January in Washington, just two years ago. Once again showdown approaches over an ultimatum to Iraq. Once again US officials are trying to decipher belligerent, semi-hysterical pronouncements from Baghdad. Once again the Pentagon has been holding clinical, quietly mancing briefings, and once again CNN has been centre-stage in the action, with an hour-by-hour countdown to 'Deadline in the Desert'.

Completing the time-warp, the network which became part of the Gulf war yesterday showed grainy grey video footage of the shooting down of the Iraqi MiG - complete with pilots' voice-over - on 27 December which provoked the current confrontation, reminiscent of those films of smart-bomb and cruise-missile wizardry in which America exulted at the start of Operation Desert Storm.

But as the dying Bush administration points out, this is not the prelude to another full-scale conflict in the Gulf. Perhaps because there have been at least three similar run-ins with Saddam Hussein over the last 18 months, perhaps because come 20 January it will no longer be Mr Bush in command, the atmosphere is different. Most obviously, there are not half a million allied troops poised to launch a ground war.

Yesterday afternoon the President departed for a previously scheduled weekend at Camp David: not quite business as usual, since he had called in his top security adviers and then visited CIA headquarters for a briefing on the crisis, but nothing to resemble the nerve-wracking wait when the UN deadline expired on 15 January 1991.

And as a confused day ended events seemed to bear out the Mr Bush's studied unflappability. Once again, as time ran out, Saddam's regime was combining violent rhetoric with grudging concessions on the ground where it mattered. White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater reported 'a good deal of movement' involving both missiles and aircraft. Barring surprises, this latest face-off appeared to be ending with a whimper, not a bang.

Even so, a sense of unease was detectable. As so often before, Saddam's motives baffle. 'You tell me,' replied General Colin Powell, the Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman, when asked what the Iraqi leader was up to. Some diplomats expect another 'cheat- and-run' anti-climax. But for most of the day the expert consensus had been that this time a major military strike against Iraqi targets was genuinely on the cards.

Clouding everything is mystery over President Saddam's mind, where apparently suicidal behaviour has a perverse logic of its own. The outgoing CIA chief, Robert Gates, this week ventured three possible explanations for the challenge: a need to deflect Iraqi attention from mounting domestic hardship, pressures from within the leadership clan, or a belief that the presidential transition here offers him a chance to shake free of UN-imposed constraints.

Mr Clinton publicly supports Mr Bush and insists that the change of administration would make 'no difference to the dedication of the United States' to the terms which President Saddam was forced to accept after his Gulf war defeat.

But if the confrontation were suddenly to escalate again over the next 11 days, an incoming president committed to focusing 'like a laser'on the economy would face an excruciating and distracting foreign policy choice: lower the heat and hand President Saddam what he would claim as moral victory, or move the country anew towards war with Iraq.

A retaliatory strike against missiles in southern Iraq would raise more questions about why the West is so reluctant to take comparable action to punish Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic for violation of the no-fly zone aimed at protecting other Muslims, far closer to home in former Yugoslavia.

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