Are Saddam's Enemies Finally Tightening The Noose?

For years, the West has played the foil for Saddam Hussein's game of cat-and-mouse. He would cheat, then retreat. The ploys bought time to hide weapons, avoided U.S. air strikes--sometimes barely--and left his adversaries divided and frustrated.

But the Iraqi leader is now facing some of the strongest threats to his regime in years--both inside and outside Iraq. For the first time, the Clinton Administration, with tacit allied support, is explicitly committed to Saddam's ouster. Although President Clinton grabbed headlines by pledging support for unspecified Iraqi opposition groups, his main hope is unrelenting economic pressure that may drive Saddam's inner circle to depose him. "His power base is becoming disillusioned," says Amatzia Baram, a Haifa University Iraq expert.

Strains are starting to show within the region. On Nov. 22, Izzat Ibrahim, a top military official was attacked by assassins but escaped. Meanwhile, there are signs that Saddam is rattled. He called his half brother Barzan al-Takriti back from Geneva and there is talk his trusted U.N. Ambassador Nizaar Hamdoon is being recalled, too.

Still, the U.S. must keep the allies solidly behind economic sanctions. Until his narrow avoidance of a U.S. attack in November, Saddam had cleverly pitted the allies against one another: While the U.S. and Britain took a hard line, France and Russia wanted to ease the embargo. No more. The allies all back plans by chief U.N. weapons inspector Richard Butler for aggressive new efforts to uncover Iraq's arsenal.

To be sure, there's no guarantee that the U.S. can push Iraq's leadership to dump Saddam. But Clinton now has a way to focus their attention: the ability to bomb Iraq without going back to the Security Council if Saddam doesn't fully cooperate with U.N. inspectors. At the same time, the anti-Iraq coalition has more cohesiveness than at any time since the 1991 gulf war. Progress on Middle East peace and Clinton's visit to Gaza and the West Bank in mid-December will help keep Arab leaders on board.

Countries that once sympathized with Iraq may now stay on the sidelines, too. The French have been hurt by the perception that they're "willing to do just about anything to get their wretched little contracts signed," says Geoffrey Kemp, director of regional strategic programs at the Nixon Center in Washington. And its own financial crisis deters Russia from antagonizing potential aid donors. "The economic problems of Russia have come to the fore," says Alexei P. Andreev, first deputy chairman of the Duma's foreign affairs committee.

Saddam may try to undermine support for sanctions by being more conciliatory. But that won't work. Even if Iraq cooperates on its nuclear program, inevitable flaps over U.N. efforts to account for chemical and biological weapons and for Kuwaiti prisoners of war will ensure that the embargo stays in place.

So the White House is betting that if Saddam is ever to be toppled, the conditions are now better than they have been for years. Analysts believe that his grasp on power has weakened since 1995. That year, he faced the fourth coup plot since 1990, two sons-in-law defected to Jordan, and he was so worried about being deposed that he purged Many family members from top posts.

Saddam kept his dwindling base loyal by arguing that he could wriggle out of the embargo. Provided the U.S. can stay on plan, that will be an empty boast soon. The message will then be clear: Sanctions won't go until Saddam does. Turning that realization into decisive action will be a hard step inside Iraq. But it's the West's best hope.