Desert Fox Has Saddam Backed Into A Corner

When President Bill Clinton launched Operation Desert Fox against Iraq in December, one of his biggest bets was that the three-day bombing campaign would not drastically upset U.S. strategic relations in the Middle East. It looked iffy: Moderate Arab states Egypt and Saudi Arabia, key members of the grand coalition against Saddam Hussein in the 1991 Persian Gulf war, both distanced themselves from the attacks. Riyadh, for one, refused to allow Saudi bases to be used, while anti-U.S. demonstrations rocked Arab capitals from Cairo to Damascus. It seemed as if Saddam might win Arab hearts and minds.

Yet a month later, it looks as though the bet paid off. Saddam is more isolated than at any time since the gulf war. Upset at the lack of concerted Arab support following the air strikes, Baghdad unleashed an unprecedented and vitriolic propaganda campaign against other Arab countries, culminating in a fierce call by Saddam on Jan. 5 for Arabs to overthrow their leaders. Fence-sitters such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia retaliated quickly and attacked Saddam's regime. "The revolution that should be made," intoned the normally bland state-run Saudi Press Agency, "is by the Iraqi people against their leader." Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak called for an end to Saddam's regime, too.

DESTABILIZING. For the 22-nation Arab League, whose member states usually avoid public mudslinging at all costs, this is an important break with tradition--and a sign of how cornered Baghdad is. It is more than rhetoric: At meetings in early January, Arab leaders such as Mubarak and Syrian President Hafiz Al-Assad began to flesh out plans to destabilize Saddam. "Saddam has singlehandedly turned the tables on himself," says Michael J. Eisenstadt, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Oddly enough, Saddam had been trying to mend rifts with his neighbors. He resumed diplomatic and commercial relations with several rich Persian Gulf countries--and longtime political rival Syria. Even Egypt opened a commercial office in Baghdad last year and sent a large trade delegation to Iraq in July. Saudi entrepreneurs, meanwhile, facing an economic downturn at home, were starting to show up in Iraq in search of business. And increasingly, Arab governments were vocally urging an end to U.N. sanctions against Iraq.

According to the Pentagon, Baghdad's tough stance against its neighbors and its challenge to U.S. and British-enforced no-fly zones are signs that Desert Fox has seriously unnerved Saddam. The U.S. now suspects that some senior leaders in the Republican Guard and special security forces were killed. And, in what may be retribution for mounting disloyalty in the Iraqi military, according to Pentagon officials, the commander and several other leaders of a division in the south were executed. There is, says General Anthony C. Zinni, commander of U.S. Central Command "a degree of desperation that we hadn't seen before."

The big question is whether Saddam can be kept isolated. In Arab capitals, there is already fear that possible new U.S. and British strikes after Ramadan ends on Jan. 18 could inflame Arab feelings. Egypt, for one, is quietly cautioning the U.S. to limit future attacks to isolated Iraqi air-defense batteries in the no-fly zones. "That would keep the pressure on Saddam while not creating a regional backlash," says a Egyptian policymaker in Cairo.

As Washington searches for a new policy to contain a weakened but still dangerous dictator, Arab support is essential. When Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright holds talks in Egypt and Saudi Arabia at the end of January, it's a sure bet that dealing with a post-Saddam Iraq will be high on the agenda.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.