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Iraq Deal: Saddam Buys Time

Renewed UN inspections this week, but no curbs on Iraqi leader's ambitions.

When it comes to Saddam Hussein, US policymakers can be sure of one thing: He'll be back.

That means another confrontation with Iraq that takes the United States to the brink of war, and perhaps beyond, is almost inevitable, say experts.

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The deal cut between UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Saddam may have successfully headed off war in the next few days or weeks. The agreement could buy the US time to try to rebuild international support for its hard-line Iraq positions.

But two immutable forces arelikely to eventually collide in the region. The US will not settle for less than aggressive inspections of sites where Iraq may have weapons of mass destruction. And Saddam is unlikely to abandon pursuit of such an arsenal.

"He's not about to retire from his own lifelong ambitions," says Steve Yetiv, a political science professor at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va. "That would be akin to sending him to some Miami retirement home for dictators. 'Bingo Saddam?' I don't think so."

As of this writing it appeared as if the United States would accept the Annan agreement. The deal satisfies a key White House position: It calls for Saddam to allow inspectors immediate, unfettered, and unlimited access to eight so-called presidential sites he had deemed off limits.

But the cleverly constructed agreement is filled with "ifs" and conditions which give it a certain ambiguity, and could cause disputes down the road. For one thing, it reportedly calls for the establishment of a new panel, controlled by Secretary-General Annan himself, to oversee presidential-site probes. Thus it would set up a new, parallel forum to the current UN Special Commission (UNSCOM). Iraq has long sought to lessen UNSCOM's influence, as the group has been irritatingly good at its job.

The deal is also imprecise about the exact boundaries of the eight sites. Mindful of past broken promises by Saddam, US officials say the important thing now is how the agreement plays out in the real world.

"We have to test it, then we have to enforce it," said US Ambassador to the UN Bill Richardson Feb. 24.

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There is much for the US to like in the Annan agreement. A use of force - which the Pentagon itself may have been reluctant to undertake - has been averted. Inspections will resume. If Saddam balks again, allies and the US public alike may judge that the White House walked the last mile for peace.

Avoiding a confrontation with Saddam - even if "avoiding" in this case means "postponing" - could be seen as a foreign policy success for the US.

But the Clinton administration will continue to take criticism from conservatives who worry that the US national interest has become subject to UN negotiations.

And one of two things is now likely to happen in Iraq, say experts. Either the US will become increasingly annoyed at restrictions placed on UNSCOM work, or Saddam may again fashion some form of defiance.

"It really depends on what Saddam thinks his interests are," says Professor Yetiv. "At some point he may think it's worth it to confront the US again."

Many Arabs and Muslims, for their part, view the agreement as a victory for Saddam Hussein. From their perspective, Saddam deftly outmaneuvered the US after thumbing his nose for months at America, its allies, and UN weapons inspectors.

Saddam has long portrayed himself as a victim of American imperialism. It is a role with which many Arabs and Muslims around the world readily identify.

Plus, the Gulf War coalition is in ruins. Even some of America's closest friends in the Persian Gulf sought to distance themselves from Washington during the recent crisis.

What did Saddam give up? He is allowing UN weapons inspectors to search presidential sites that would have long since been cleared of any illicit weapons materials. And he agreed to allow weapons inspectors greater access provided those inspectors respect Iraqi dignity and sovereignty.

To involve the UN secretary general in efforts to uphold the dignity and sovereignty of the Iraqi government is an important benefit to a regime that under different circumstances might be named as defendants in a war crimes tribunal.

But that's not all Saddam received, analysts say. He also received a pledge that in exchange for his cooperation with weapons inspectors the UN would look anew at the issue of lifting the economic embargo that Saddam says is starving his nation.

From the perspective of the Iraqi people, ordinary Iraqis perceive themselves as being slightly better off today to the extent that the UN may be closer to lifting the economic sanctions. And they are certainly much better off than had the US launched an attack which America's own military experts suggest would have caused extensive civilian casualties.

Mohammed Rumaihi, a Kuwaiti writer who closely follows events in Iraq, says the US approach to Saddam has been misguided. "If you really want to have peace in this area you have to put the suffering of the Iraqi people up to the surface. The issue is not the shortage of food and medicine, but the shortage of freedom," he says.

Here in Kuwait, which was invaded by Iraq in 1990, Saddam is not viewed as a hero. "People are relieved that war is averted," says Ahmed Bishara, a Kuwaiti political scientist. "And yet on the other hand we are dismayed in the sense that Saddam is let go and he is back to square one to start his games all over again in a few months."

Unlike Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states, Kuwait has taken a relatively hard line against the Iraqi president. Analysts in Kuwait say despite the lack of public pronouncements of support from other Gulf states, privately the pro-western Arab leaders in the region are hoping the Iraqi president is killed or removed from power by the US. No one is prepared to say it, but they are all thinking it, these analysts say.

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