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Iraq's `Charm Offensive' Kicking Into High Gear

IRAQI President Saddam Hussein's capital city is calm again and its residents are undisturbed by antiaircraft fire.

In the quiet following Western air strikes last month - and despite continuing United Nations sanctions - some observers and members of Saddam's government say Iraq hopes to use a different approach to generate a change in the West's stance.

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Combative tactics have been set aside, with Saddam's much-predicted (in the West) "charm offensive" apparently now begun.

Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz invited a softer approach from the Clinton administration in TV interviews last month. Others in Saddam's Cabinet are even more forthcoming.

"We have no problems with US interests in this region," said Taha Yassin Ramadan, one of the ideological fathers of the Iraqi Baath Party, who also holds the post of vice president, and sits on the elite Revolutionary Command Council.

"The strategic interests of the US and our interests in the region are hardly different - we both want stability," he said in a recent rare interview with the Jordanian Daily newspaper Al Rai'i.

Such modest signs of an opening by the government - whether tactical or strategic - do not, of course, mean an end to public criticism of the United States and the West.

"There are obvious contradictions in the policies of the West" toward Saddam and Iraq, says Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, one of Iraq's foremost intellectuals. "They [the West] make us into a military might by selling us every form of military hardware available ... and then they come to destroy them."

He calls "ridiculous" the idea that humanitarian motives at least partly motivate US foreign policy in a "new world order." Yet Mr. Jabra's disdain is not so openly expressed by officials.

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"We are waiting for a response from the US leadership," says Minister of Trade Mohammed Mehdi Saleh, a leading voice within the government for lifting UN sanctions against Iraq. "In two or three months time at the latest we hope that a new policy toward co-existence with Iraq will have been formed by the Clinton administration."

Although Iraq has failed to address problems in Iraqi-Kuwaiti relations, Mr. Ramadan made overtures to Saudi Arabia in no uncertain terms as well.

"We want peaceful co-existence with our Arab brothers in Saudi Arabia. We are as much concerned about regional security as anyone else," he adds. This apparent about-face seems to have drawn little reaction, however, from the parties it is intended to impress: other Arab nations and the US.

Still, Iraqi officials are well aware of the recent attention that growing industrial and military power in Iran have been receiving in Western think tanks and the news media. Hoping to capitalize on the West's traditional attempt to play the two gulf giants off against one another, they hope the West will turn to Iraq once again to fend off the "Iranian threat."

"We know that the Russians were upset at the recent waves of attacks against us, mainly because they believe that it would be strategically unwise to weaken us further while Iran's [military] power grows," says Mahmoud Taha, a political science professor at the University of Baghdad. "We believe both the Americans and the Saudis are interested in keeping Iran in check and that has traditionally been done by strengthening us."

The issue of democracy and a liberalization of the Iraqi political system was a main topic of speculation throughout the post-war period in which former Prime Minister Saddoun Hamadi, a liberal Baathist, directed at least some of the political events in Iraq. But any thought of a fledgling democratic shift has evaporated, being secondary to national unity and economic survival.

Saddam Hussein is still the unquestioned leader of Iraq - and at least to supporters, the rules of regional power are the same.

"We are not concerned with democracy right now," says Jabra, the intellectual poet laureate. "We need a cease-fire, then we need stability. And then we can talk about political liberalization." But most Iraqis do not believe democratization or a multiparty government will be possible under Saddam's rule.

"We will not have democracy under this regime. There is no hope of that. But we do hope that there will be a cease-fire between Iraq and the West and maybe a lifting of the nonmilitary sanctions," Mr. Taha adds hopefully.

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