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Saddam's Jujitsu

SADDAM HUSSEIN'S "cave-in" at Iraq's Ministry of Agriculture July 27 - in President Bush's blustery phrase - looked more like a well-planned tactical retreat after a small but significant victory over the winners of the Gulf war.

By barring the ministry's doors to United Nations weapons inspectors for three weeks, Saddam gained time to remove or destroy incriminating documents regarding Iraq's development of weapons of mass destruction. And in winning UN agreement to remove Americans from the inspection team that actually entered the building, the Iraqi dictator brazenly tweaked the leader of the Desert Storm coalition.

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Saddam Hussein is mastering a kind of political jujitsu. He recognizes that the UN coalition, including the US, feels restrained by political, diplomatic, and psychological factors from unleashing further military force against Iraq without extreme provocation. Saddam is cleverly testing the limits of UN resolve.

Iraq is violating a number of conditions of the accords that ended the Gulf war, but Saddam keeps stopping just short of the UN's receding line in the sand.

What are the allies to do? Incidents like the standoff in Baghdad don't alone justify the use of airstrikes or other force against Iraq. But the US is right to be preparing for military action. Such action may be called for in time, especially to protect Shiites in southern Iraq against Saddam's jet fighters or to protect Kurds in the north from a buildup of Iraqi ground forces.

In the meantime, the UN needs to make it plain to Saddam that interference with or harassment of weapons inspectors will bring punishment, including a tightening of economic sanctions.

Saddam believes that time is on his side. He thinks the UN will tire of protracted involvement in Iraq and eventually withdraw.

Having passed up the opportunity to get rid of Saddam in the Gulf war, the UN must prove that it has the stamina to exert long, steady pressure on Iraq to comply with international requirements.

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