Gulf Politics Have Bush Treading Softly In Iraq

Ever since Iraq's Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait, President Bush has been denouncing Saddam Hussein as a brutal "Hitler" and beating the drums for his overthrow. But now, with insurrection raging in Iraq, Bush is suddenly backing off. Although the U. S. military controls Iraq's airspace, Bush is allowing Saddam to use helicopter gunships freely to put down rebellions by Kurds in the north and by Shiite Muslims in the south. And Saddam seems to be regaining his grip on power.

What has turned Bush cautious is the politics of the U. S.-led gulf alliance--especially the worries of Saudi Arabia and other gulf monarchies that the insurrections could break up Iraq. Such a split, they fear, would open southern Iraq to Iranian influence and unleash a new wave of militant Shiite fundamentalism in the gulf. The Soviets are equally concerned that the U. S. not foment the overthrow of the Baghdad regime, because they fear turmoil in a nearby client state. Bush needs the support of the Soviets, who have a veto in the United Nations Security Council, to push through a 20-page resolution spelling out cease-fire terms in the gulf.

HORSE-TRADING. Up to now, Bush has largely called the tune in the anti-Iraq alliance because the U. S. supplies most of the coalition's military firepower. But the U. S. will now have to engage in more diplomatic horse-trading to achieve its objectives of nailing down the cease-fire and pushing for a broader settlement of Mideast conflicts. One victim seems likely to be the Kurds, who may face vicious punishment from Baghdad for their uprising.

If Saddam clings to power, it will be more difficult to parlay the gulf victory into long-term stability in the region. For that reason, the U. S. has been working in the Security Council to impose tough, even humiliating, conditions on Iraq in return for a permanent cease-fire. Among them are the destruction under international supervision of all nuclear, chemical, biological, and ballistic-missile systems and related research facilities. Some U. S. officials think such harsh terms may inspire Iraq's military leaders to try a coup against Saddam, while keeping their nation intact.

But that may be wishful thinking. The uprisings may actually be protecting Saddam from the military's anger, since all forces are concentrating on ending the uprisings. Once the domestic rebellions started, says Christine M. Helms, a Washington-based specialist on Iraq, "the military was sidetracked into trying to maintain territorial integrity." Some analysts even think Saddam could emerge strengthened from the insurrection. "The Iraqis who are maddest at him are the ones being liquidated today," says Yahya M. Sadowski of the Brookings Institution. "With them out of the way," he adds, Iraq "could be quiet for a generation."

As Desert Storm recedes into the past, the plight of Iraqis may make it harder for Washington to hold together the international consensus for a continued squeeze on Saddam. On Mar. 22, the Security Council agreed to allow food, medicines, fuel, and other essentials into Iraq after a U. N. mission had reported that Iraq was on the verge of famine and epidemics. While few observers think that Saddam will be able to rebuild his military anytime soon, it's becoming clear that even after the war, Iraq remains a major trouble spot for Bush.

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