Leading Article: Unfinished business

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Saddam Hussein is neither a military genius nor a skilled diplomatic tactician. He is, without doubt, a bold and shameless master of the art of cheat and retreat, but he is also ill-educated, ill-informed and - like most dictators - surrounded by people who pander to his ignorance and his prejudices. He makes errors of judgement which try the patience of the world and eventually result in the imposition of heavy but justified penalties upon his unfortunate country. So it was last night.

A similar tendency to push his luck and to misjudge the mood and the resolve of his enemies was apparent, both during the months preceding the Gulf war and subsequently. Before the deadline of 15 January 1991, President Saddam was given opportunity after opportunity to avoid bloodshed by withdrawing from Kuwait. He rejected them all because he convinced himself that the allies were bluffing and did not have the stomach for the long and bloody struggle which, so he believed, his forces could impose.

Once the conflict started, Saddam persuaded himself that he could convert the Arab world to his cause by turning the war to liberate Kuwait into an anti-Israeli crusade. He was wrong. The coalition held. Subsequently, Saddam's crude and ill-considered bullying of Iraq's Kurdish minority and the marsh Arabs of the south led to the creation of UN-imposed no-fly zones and safe havens. These gave the allies a lasting moral and diplomatic reason for involving themselves in the 'internal affairs' of his unhappy nation.

More recently, during the dog days of the Bush administration, Saddam has been testing the resolve of the United States. He now has his answer. The outgoing president, the president-elect and America's allies are united in their determination that the latest in a series of increasingly provocative examples of Iraqi defiance of UN resolutions should not go unpunished. Yesterday evening, however, a Bush administration official was quoted as saying that the initial round of attacks amounted to 'just a spanking for Saddam, not a real beating'. It is to be hoped that this was disinformation, or a warning to those around Saddam that worse is yet to come unless they depose him forthwith.

In order to build and maintain a credible coalition, with significant Arab and Third World representation, it was necessary for the 1991 war to be fought with the narrow and clearly defined aim of forcing Iraq out of Kuwait and compelling the aggressor nation to make some financial restitution. The removal of Saddam - though highly desirable - was deemed to be an impractical objective.

Moreover the allies, led by the United States, took a complacent view of the likelihood of Saddam's survival. They felt he might well be removed without further foreign involvement. In any case, they feared to advance on Baghdad lest a bloodbath ensued and/or the country had to be occupied indefinitely. They worried about the collapse of the country, leading to an Iran-dominated state in the south and an independent Kurdistan in the north, threatening to destabilise Turkey and Syria.

These fears now seem less important. It is apparent that as long as Saddam Hussein remains in power Iraq will be a source of instability in the region and will therefore be denied the rehabilitation it so sorely needs.