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THE WORLD FROM...Washington

Triumph of 1989 revolutions recedes as conflicts in Gulf, Baltics rivet world's attention

In a corridor outside one of the Pentagon's biggest lunchrooms there's a slab of the Berlin Wall, backlit and mounted behind glass as an exhibit to the end of the cold war. Last year, when it was erected, it was a big draw. Now few people stop to admire its graffiti. They hurry past, with other things on their mind.

History has returned to Washington with a vengeance. No one here really expected the golden glow of the end of the cold war to last, but few were prepared for the suddenness with which the weather turned. The Gulf crisis and the Soviet crackdown in Lithuania have already made the Eastern European revolutions of 1989 seem distant.

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Once the potential power of a reunited Germany was America's biggest international worry. Now officials are transfixed by a Mikhail Gorbachev they no longer understand, and an Iraqi leader they believe they understand too well.

The fate of the Baltics may be more important in the long term, but it is still a sideshow to a city caught up in a Gulf standoff marked by intense, personal rhetoric. President Bush says he's ``fed up'' with Saddam Hussein, then complains he's been given a a ``total stiff arm.'' The Iraqi leader responds in kind, threatening that Americans will ``swim in their own blood, God willing.'' At times the pair sound like professional wrestlers, pounding their chests and posturing for the camera.

But unlike wrestling, the threats aren't for show. In recent days, war gloom has descended on the US capital as the failure of the Geneva talks and of UN Secretary General Javier P'erez de Cu'ellar's last-minute mission to Baghdad convinces people that Saddam Hussein positively wants to fight.

It no longer seems probable that Iraq is counting on the US being unwilling to use force. Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz hinted as much in his Geneva press conference last week. Yet as of this writing there has been no blink from Iraq even as the Jan. 15 deadline for them to leave Kuwait or face ouster by force comes down upon them. Perhaps Saddam has decided that his best chance is to throw the dice of war. Perhaps he thinks his military can absorb a strike by US-led forces, then wait it out until rising casualties cause Bush to call a halt. He may know that even if he withdraws his problems won't end. With his army intact, the Israelis would be watching him, the Syrians would be watching him, and he would have earned the enmity of Egypt and Saudi Arabia and all the other Arabs he has threatened. He may know the US would still treat him an international pariah, and perhaps continue economic sanctions.

Saddam and his officials have long felt they were the targets of an international conspiracy, of which Kuwait, Israel, and the US were chief members. Now that they really are the target of an international conspiracy their paranoia may know no bounds.

Saddam may be a prisoner of his own words, unwilling to back down after all he has said. He may have come to believe the heroic image of himself Iraq portrays.

``This psychological dimension is very important,'' says a Defense Department Middle East analyst.

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The analyst pauses. ``Of course, I think the same thing has happened here in our society. Bush feels he has to win'' this personal confrontation.

So the pair face each other in a box, perhaps unable to see a way out even if they want to.

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