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Iraqi Brinksmanship

SADDAM HUSSEIN is clearly determined to see how far he can push the United Nations and the United States without provoking a military response. His motives, as always, are cloaked in the intricacies of Iraqi politics and in his own power-hungry personality.

The last week has seen a succession of Saddam maneuvers. His deployment of anti-aircraft missiles in southern Iraq threatened US planes enforcing a "no fly" zone there. An ultimatum was issued, and Saddam repositioned the missiles just enough to avoid open conflict. Next he refused to allow UN weapons inspectors to use their own planes in Iraq. He sent raiders over the newly redrawn border with Kuwait to retrieve equipment, including weapons. Finally, he deployed anti-aircraft missiles in the north, in a nother no-fly zone.

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The no-fly zone incidents dare the allies to launch air strikes. Saddam's partial retreat in the south showed he will flinch, though he won't admit it.

The other incidents directly affect the UN's ability to enforce its cease-fire resolutions. The attempted ban on UN flights in and around Iraq would significantly hinder efforts to identify and destroy Saddam's high-tech weapons facilities. That task is at the heart of the UN's mission in Iraq; if the international policing efforts there - and elsewhere - are to retain credibility, it can't be compromised. This issue is worth again going to the brink of military action against Saddam.

The border incursions have to be stopped too, and the best way to accomplish this is a beefed-up UN presence. The 250 or so unarmed observers now deployed in the demilitarized zone can put up little resistance.

Saddam's provocations convey a clear message to the UN and to the Gulf war allies: He intends to keep tensions at a peak. As he calculates his options, Saddam sees a UN stretched very thin and a West that can't bring itself to act forcefully in Bosnia. He also knows that many countries are uneasy with the UN-imposed curbs on Iraq's sovereignty. He might decide that his next move is in the north, where the Kurds are struggling to set up their own, autonomous republic. Then what?

Standing firm against the Iraqi dictator's efforts to reassert himself won't be easy. In the US and elsewhere concern over domestic problems will test people's patience with an overseas crisis that is constantly being rekindled. But considering the precedent that would be set by letting an expansionist dictator again have his rein, the patience and vigilance are warranted.

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