JUST why Iraq's President Saddam Hussein chose to flex his Army's muscle near the Kuwait border at the moment he did remains a mystery. But the net effect is almost sure to leave Iraq further from its long-stated goal of relief from crushing United Nations economic sanctions.
Most UN diplomats and reporters were stunned to learn that while Iraq's Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz was complaining of ``vindictive'' United States-led UN sanctions in the General Assembly on Oct. 6, thousands of Iraqi troops were marching southward to the border.
The US and Britain, hard-liners on the 15-member Security Council, had been on the verge of isolation in their firm insistence that Iraq heed all UN cease-fire terms (including return of Kuwaiti property and prisoners and an end to minority repression) before any lifting of the four-year-old sanctions. Pressure was growing within the Council to offer Baghdad credit for deeds done and at least a target date for sanctions relief.
Yet Iraq's latest move is forging a more united front. An Oct. 8 Council resolution expresses ``grave concern'' over the action and says the Oct. 7 suggestion of Iraq's Revolutionary Command Council and Baath Party that Baghdad might stop cooperating with the UN is ``completely unacceptable.''
All Council members have long insisted that Iraq must recognize Kuwait and its borders before any sanctions are lifted. Yet Baghdad's friends on the Council such as France and Russia now are likely to be more skeptical than before if a recognition offer is made.
A UN official was scheduled to submit a six-month report to the UN by Oct. 10 on Iraq's progress in eliminating weapons of mass destruction. Yet the embargo on Iraqi oil sales linked to such progress was unlikely to be lifted before mid-1995. If Iraq hoped by its troop buildup at the border to force a speedier end to sanctions or negotiations, Baghdad clearly miscalculated.
``No one on the Council is prepared to discuss these issues under threat,'' insists Britain's Ambassador to the UN David Hannay, this month's Council president.
``How can you lift the sanctions when he [Saddam Hussein] is behaving like this?'' asks Gregory Gause, a Gulf expert at New York's Columbia University. ``Maybe three weeks ago you could have argued that it was time to give a little something to Saddam, if only in recognition that you can't keep sanctions on forever ... but I don't see the possibility now.''
Even Nizar Hamdoon, Iraq's veteran ambassador to the UN concedes that Iraq might have set back its own cause. ``Personally I would think this crisis was not very good for Iraq,'' he told reporters. ``I mean it was counterproductive....''
But did US refusal to offer Iraq any credit for progress made or a time line for testing the new long-range arms-monitoring system play a role in Baghdad's troop action? A leading Jordanian newspaper, al-Rai, insists US ``stubbornness'' in refusing to acknowledge Iraq's compliance is to blame for the new tension.
The Clinton administration, like its predecessor, says that holding Iraq's feet to the fire is the only way to go. As US Ambassador to the UN Madeleine Albright put it in her reply to Mr. Aziz's Assembly speech: ``Iraq has sought to evade, ignore, and negotiate away its obligations - the only approach it has not tried is compliance.''