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.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
news
News
peopleIt seems you can't silence Katie Hopkins, even on Christmas Day...
Arts and Entertainment
tvChristmas special reviewed
Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)
tvOur review of the Doctor Who Christmas Special
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman as Clara Oswald in the Doctor Who Christmas special
tvForget the rumours that Clara Oswald would be quitting the Tardis
Arts and Entertainment
Japanese artist Megumi Igarashi showing a small mascot shaped like a vagina
art
Life and Style
fashion
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: Stanley Tucci, Sophie Grabol and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tvSo Sky Atlantic arrived in Iceland to film their new and supposedly snow-bound series 'Fortitude'...
Arts and Entertainment
tv
News
The Queen delivers her Christmas message
newsTwitter reacts to Her Majesty's Christmas Message
Sport
sport
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketing Controller (Financial Services)

£70000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketi...

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

£24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Day In a Page

A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all