A High Risk Endgame In The Gulf

Wars end with indelible images. In the case of Vietnam, it was the haunting picture of desperate evacuees trying to climb aboard a helicopter hovering over the roof of the U. S. Embassy in Saigon. Now, with the gulf war entering its final phase, George Bush has decided to get choosy about the last frame. That desire, and Bush's insistence that the conflict serve as a contrast to the humiliation of Vietnam, help explain why the White House stomped hard on a last-minute peace plan from Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev--and why a U. S.-led ground war may be only a heartbeat away.

Despite the convenient out offeredby the Soviet withdrawal plan, President Bush has already selected his finalpicture of the gulf war. Rather than a portrait of a smiling Gorbachev and Saddam Hussein, Bush prefers the image of thousands of bomb-shocked Iraqi troops abandoning their positions in Kuwait in a humbling mass surrender. Without rejecting Gorbachev's Feb. 15 plan outright, Bush said it fell "well short of what would be required" to end the war. Anything less than a military rout of Iraq or a resounding political defeat of Saddam might allow the Iraqi leader to salvage some political gains--and reemerge within a few years in his familiar role as regional bully.

FIRE CONTROL. The President's strategy carries its share of risks. Simply by saying "yes" to the Soviet offer, Saddam could put Bush on the spot. If Bush pushes ahead with a ground war anyway, he risks being tarred as a warmonger. And if the ground war is longer and bloodier than expected, he could jeopardize his political support at home. To complicate matters, any rebuff of Moscow could chill superpower relations and further undermine Gorbachev's standing with his growing chorus of Soviet critics.

But Bush is betting that he has the upper hand. So far, the coalition has shown surprising unity. The President's military advisers boast that the allies are devastating Iraq's war machine, knocking out at least a third of Saddam's tanks and artillery. And the Administration can barely contain its glee that there has been little Arab backlash against the U. S. Says a senior Administration official: "Everyone said that if we went to war with Iraq, the Middle East would erupt. Well, it hasn't."

That fuels White House confidence that even if Saddam accepts the Soviet offer, the U. S. and its allies could reshape the terms to deal the Iraqi leader a decisive blow. "What we want to avoid," says a senior aide to British Prime Minister John Major, "is an Iraqi victory march back into Baghdad."

Even if Saddam folds before full-scale ground combat erupts, the White House will impose some stiff conditions on Baghdad. Bush will insist that Iraqi troops withdraw rapidly, leave vast amounts of armor and artillery behind, and immediately release all prisoners of war. The President may also demand that war-battered Iraq pay billions in reparations to Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and perhaps Israel.

While the military outcome can only be an Iraqi defeat, Saddam may emerge with some face-saving political gains. If he remains in power, he could muscle his way into Middle East debates ranging from the Arab-Israeli dispute to oil pricing. "A tie is a victory for him," says Peter W. Rodman, a former National Security Council staffer. "He'll trumpet that he fought the whole world to a standstill. We'll have created a monster."

Saddam's survival in power could force the U. S. to leave forces in the region far longer than its Arab allies want. That could inflame fears from the Middle East to Moscow that the U. S. is seeking hegemony in the region. "It's going to be important to our credibility to get our forces out," says one top Bush aide. "There's a lot of skepticism about our ultimate intentions."

That's why the White House prefers what it believes would be a quick and decisive ground war. General H. Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of coalition forces, predicts a ground assault would force Saddam's troops to surrender in droves. His words gained credence on Feb. 20 when as many as 500 Iraqi troops surrendered to U. S. soldiers after a brief skirmish. Military planners think the war could be over just two weeks after a ground offensive begins.

The allies are likely to mount a pincer movement combining amphibious landings in Kuwait with massive ground forces invading Iraq from Saudi Arabia. The aim is to force Iraqi troops out of their defensive positions into the open, where allied aircraft can mow them down while U. S. troops take minimal casualties. "The Iraqi army will collapse immediately after the start of a ground operation," one cocky Saudi defense official predicts. "They are looking for an excuse to give up but don't know how."

If Iraq, however, succeeds in inflicting heavy casualties, perhaps with chemical weapons, recriminations will fly. Many Germans and Japanese question Bush's coolness to the pact offered to Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz in Moscow. If the point of a U. S.-led ground war becomes toppling Saddam, Bush could provoke a coalition rift--even with staunch ally Britain, which is uncomfortable with that objective.

'PERSONAL THING.' Gorbachev insists that he is trying to deliver exactly what Bush wants: Iraq's unconditional withdrawal from Kuwait. But by spurning the offer, Bush has stung Moscow and may have weakened Gorbachev's position with Kremlin hard-liners.

On Capitol Hill, the quick rejection of the Soviet offer has led some Democrats to come out of their bunkers. "I don't know how Bush could fail to accept it if Saddam Hussein would agree to withdraw unconditionally--and in short order," said House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.). Even Democratic moderates such as Senator John Glenn of Ohio worry that Bush is waging a vendetta. "The Administration has made this a very personal thing right from the beginning," he says.

Personal? You bet. From the outset, Bush has sought to turn the Kuwait crisis into a high-noon showdown with Saddam. He made Desert Storm the test of his "new world order" and deliberately backed Saddam into a corner, all but preempting a diplomatic solution. Now that the conflict is nearing its climax, Bush is anxious not to let Saddam, Gorbachev, or anyone else script the final frame.

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