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Iraq: Get the Message

IN dispatching 38,000 troops, additional combat aircraft, and the aircraft carrier George Washington to the Persian Gulf, President Clinton has sent an unambiguous, appropriate signal to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein: The rapid buildup of Iraqi troops near the border with Kuwait is a serious regional security threat that will quickly be met with a serious response.

No one wants a replay of the 1991 Gulf war; yet that war had its roots, in part, in ambiguous signals from the United States to Iraq regarding Washington's view of disputes between Baghdad and Kuwait. Moreover, positioning at least 80,000 Iraqi troops, including mechanized units, within a few miles of the Kuwaiti border mirrors the deployment that preceded the 1990 invasion of Kuwait. Saddam has done the improbable before; hence the appropriateness of the administration's response.

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One likely explanation for Saddam's sudden move lies in Iraq's internal hardships. The United Nations embargo against Iraqi oil exports has drastically cut the country's income. Food supplies are short; the government is said to have recently cut Iraqis' rations in half. Inflation is roaring. And reports have surfaced of at least one attempted military coup. Yet the hardships would end fairly quickly if Saddam met the UN's requirements: among them, recognizing Kuwait's borders and eliminating Baghdad's capability to build weapons of mass destruction - chemical, biological, and nuclear. Ironically, yesterday the UN Security Council was scheduled to hear a report that long-term verification equipment installed in Iraq is ready for testing - evidence of at least some Iraqi cooperation. France and Russia were leaning toward easing sanctions until the troop buildup began. They now are said to stand behind the sanctions. Moreover, the UN does allow for Iraqi oil exports as long as they pay for humanitarian needs - food and medical supplies, for example - and for war reparations to Kuwait. Saddam has refused those conditions.

Another explanation for Saddam's actions may lie in how he might view Washington and the UN. He no doubt has noted the Security Council's relatively toothless resolutions on Bosnia-Herzegovina, the deteriorating situation in Somalia, and most recently, Mr. Clinton's acceptance of a political deal in Haiti, negotiated even as US troop transports were in the air. Saddam once again seems to be placing the region on a knife's edge. The West has a responsibility to stand up to his challenge. The sanctions and conditions for lifting them are clear. His opportunity to ``compromise'' came in early 1990; he failed to take it.

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