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Pre-Election Caution: Avoid a Misstep On Iraq and Iran

AMERICAN policy towards Iraq and Iran is under review, and the Bush administration should be careful that, especially under the pressures of a domestic election this year, it does not make a misstep.

The temptation will be to toughen the American stand on Iraq, where Saddam Hussein remains in provocative control, and to soften it towards Iran because of its "help" in getting American hostages released. Neither shift may be in the best interests of the United States at this time.

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At the highest levels of the White House there is bitter resentment that Saddam has survived politically in Iraq, and anger that he is somehow managing to project his military defeat by the US as some kind of moral victory.

The irritation with Saddam is fanned by a spate of anniversary news stories and articles questioning whether the Bush team botched the campaign by halting it when it did. Nobody is suggesting the American ground forces should have swept onwards to Baghdad and captured or killed the Iraqi leader. But some critics say the war should have gone on longer, preventing the escape of a lot of Iraqi soldiers and their weaponry. This, goes the argument, would have made Saddam much weaker than he is today, perhaps might even have triggered the coup against him for which President George Bush has vainly called.

There is clearly concern in the White House that Saddam Hussein's survival is a political negative in an election year. Accordingly, there have been recent leaks of a combined Saudi Arabian-US plan to destabilize the Iraqi leader. Under the plan, the US would give clandestine support to various opposition groups inside Iraq - the Kurds, Shiite Muslims, and Sunni Muslim dissidents.

If such a project is in the making, why the leaks? Is the plan for real, or is it disinformation designed to put pressure on the hitherto reluctant Iraqi generals the Bush administration hopes will ultimately overthrow Saddam?

The US had its opportunity to get rid of the Iraqi leader when its forces were on a victorious roll through southern Iraq. That moment has passed. The present situation is not so catastrophic; Saddam is subdued, if not destroyed. His nuclear development program has been hobbled. His air force has been obliterated. His country is under microscopic American surveillance. If it chooses, the US can respond swiftly to any menacing action on his part.

But a new unprovoked American strike against Iraq could be a risky business. Senior American commanders are not for it. All might not go so well, and American casualties might not be so light, a second time around. There might not be the same measure of international support. The Middle East peace negotiations could be jeopardized. Election day could come in America with a mess in the Gulf.

Quiet American support for the opposition forces in Iraq is one thing. The kind of initiative that could plunge America into another full-scale war with Iraq in the months preceding the American election is a very different and questionable proposition for the Bush administration.

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Meanwhile, Iran: Some may be tempted to think that "moderate factions" prevailed in Iran in securing the release of the American hostages. There is no such evidence. Rather, the evidence points to the fact that there was a cynical calculation that there was nothing more to be gained by holding the hostages, and much to be gained for Iran by releasing them. Meanwhile, there is no suggestion that Iran has abandoned its involvement in international terrorism; indeed, some claim knowledge of Iranian plans to

step it up. As far as Iran's human rights record within its own borders is concerned, this remains deplorable. In addition, Iranian leaders have bitterly attacked the current Middle East peace talks.

There is nothing in Iran's recent record to commend that country for more benevolent treatment by the US. We should not be deluded into believing we owe Iran something for its role in freeing hostages who should never have been seized and held.

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