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US, Iraq Squeeze a Hair Trigger

American strike on Iraqi radar site shows how close two nations are to greater violence.

After several months of quiet unease, fresh tensions are building between the United States and Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

Already at odds over new evidence that Iraq lied about the extent of its chemical-warfare program, frictions between the sides climbed June 30 after a US jet fired a missile at an Iraqi missile battery that had locked onto British aircraft.

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The Allied planes, on routine patrol in the no-fly zone over southern Iraq, returned to their base in Saudi Arabia safely, US officials said. It was not immediately known whether the Iraqi missile site was hit.

It was unclear at time of writing if the incident would lead to a new showdown with Saddam. It comes only four months after last-minute United Nations mediation averted US strikes on Iraq for blocking weapons inspections. "We don't know at this stage whether it was an isolated incident," says a Western official. "It could have been a mistake [by Iraq] or part of a new pattern."

Even so, the incident underscores the persisting potential for yet another confrontation with Saddam more than seven years after a US-led military coalition ended his occupation of oil-rich Kuwait, but decided against trying to remove him from power.

Many experts believe that it is only a question of time before the US finds itself tangling again with Saddam. He has instigated past crises as part of a strategy to wear down international support for maintaining debilitating UN sanctions imposed on Iraq after its 1990 invasion of Kuwait. The sanctions cannot be lifted until the UN certifies that all of Iraq's illegal weapons programs have been shut down.

The last time the US and Iraq clashed was in September 1996, when the US fired cruise missiles at Iraqi anti-aircraft defenses after Saddam sent troops into northern Iraqi Kurdistan.

Concerns that a new confrontation may be looming grew last week after the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM), charged with tracking down Saddam's chemical, biological, and ballistic-missile programs, revealed that Iraq had loaded VX nerve gas into missile warheads in 1991.

Weapons findings

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The findings, produced in US Army tests on warhead fragments, dealt a major setback to Saddam's efforts to end the UN sanctions. They undermine Iraq's claims that it never loaded VX into missile warheads because it had been unable to produce VX in a stable form.

"We've known for a long time that ... they were not telling the truth and nothing but the truth, and that they systematically sought to conceal stuff," says a US official. "There are still big parts of the truth that we don't know."

Iraq, however, has told UNSCOM that it has no more information to provide on its development of VX, only a few drops of which are fatal.

It remains unclear what strategy - confrontation or cooperation - Iraq will adopt to defuse the likelihood that as a result of the VX findings, the sanctions will be maintained for another six months. Sanctions come up for review by the UN Security Council in October.

"We had a sort of smoking gun with the traces of VX found in the warhead fragments," says the US official.

Should Iraq take further provocative moves in coming days, such as the type that prompted the June 30 incident, experts say that will likely signal a decision to move toward confrontation.

"It's too early to tell," says Anthony Cordesman, a Middle East expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based policy institute.

News of the June 30 incident boosted the oil market, sensitive to any actions that increase tension in the Gulf. Traders said they were waiting for more details - and the reaction by the Iraqis -to assess how to proceed.

Some senior Iraqi officials and the state-run press have reinforced concerns of a looming crisis by unleashing a torrent of diatribes against UNSCOM chief Richard Butler over the VX findings. They warn of an unspecified new "crisis" if the sanctions are not lifted immediately.

But Ameer al-Saadi, an adviser to Saddam who heads talks with UNSCOM on chemical weapons, has signaled moderation. He suggests Baghdad will continue cooperating with the inspectors. Indeed, talks were held June 30 in Baghdad between Iraq and International Atomic Energy Agency experts on certifying Iraq's compliance in halting its illicit nuclear-arms program.

Talks are also set for later this month with an UNSCOM delegation following up on the new VX evidence.

Saddam's appearance of cooperation with international monitors has been another facet of his effort to end the sanctions. By using that approach, he has succeeded in weakening the 1991 Gulf War coalition by winning support for a lifting of the sanctions from Russia and France, both of which have substantial commercial interests in Iraq.

In addition, his cooperative gestures have weakened support for hard-line US policies among moderate Arab states, where popular sympathy for Iraq's economic plight is high.

Iraq's decision to boost the appearance of cooperation began in earnest in February, when UN Secretary General Kofi Annan won an agreement from Saddam to allow UNSCOM to search for illicit weapons in eight of his sprawling palace complexes.

It was this accord that averted attacks on Iraq by an American-led force deployed in the Gulf.

US unimpressed

US officials, however, say despite Iraq's more accommodating attitude, it has yet to fully disclose the extent of its weapons programs.

Until it does, they say, the US will ensure that the sanctions remain in effect, raising the potential for a new showdown.

"Are we headed for another confrontation? We look at this as not that we should be or we want to be. We don't," says the US official. "But we may be."

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