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Iraq retreats, but for how long?

A close call on Saturday, and a loss of his allies, pushes Saddam to accept inspections.

Seven years after the end of Operation Desert Storm, the struggle between Iraq and the US has become a new cold war of threats, maneuvering, and tests of will.

In the latest example of high-stakes Gulf brinkmanship, Iraq may have conceded just enough to forestall a punishing US-led bombing campaign - though all options remain open, according to US officials.

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"Iraq has backed down," President Clinton said yesterday, after saying Iraq will again accept UN weapons inspections unconditionally. "But that is not enough. Now Iraq must live up to its obligations."

Whatever happens in coming days, say experts, eventually there will be another crisis over the process of eliminating weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and then another.

Absent a collapse of the Iraqi regime, Saddam Hussein may present a geopolitical problem for the United States that can only be solved by containment, and patience. While the stakes are not as high as those of the long struggle between the US and the Soviet Union, the situation is perhaps similar.

"If he escalates down the road, the US [will] have to face up to new choices again," says Shibley Telhami, a Middle East expert at the University of Maryland.

However, while Iraqi UN envoy Nizar Hamdoon said the agreement to cooperate was unconditional, it came with an annex that called for a review of sanctions within days of the return of the inspectors, and a partial lifting of sanctions even before the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) gives Baghdad a good report card.

Eight years after losing the Gulf War, Iraq may still hope it can win a war of attrition. Baghdad aims to capitalize on perceived divisions among members of the UN Security Council. When members met Saturday night, Britain and the US seemed to stand alone in their critical reading of Baghdad's latest move.

Secretary-General Kofi Annan, France, Russia, and China all interpreted Iraq's annex as a "wish list." As the Security Council met, Mr. Hamdoon presented a new letter stressing that the annex is simply his government's "views and preferences" that are "not linked to the clear and unconditional decision of the Iraqi government to resume dealing with UNSCOM...."

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Hamdoon then told reporters that "the annex is history." But the US fears that the issues contained in the so-called wish list will yet evolve into demands. The annex did not explicitly call for UNSCOM Chairman Richard Butler to be fired, as Baghdad had insisted when it set off this crisis on Oct. 31. But the annex contained a veiled warning: "The question of Butler and the structure of UNSCOM and its practices are important matters.... The Council is to consider them seriously in order to ensure a good relationship...."

President Clinton yesterday indicated Iraq had backed down, cautioning that Baghdad had to deliver on its promise of full access. But Russia, France, and other Security Council members could well see the whole package as representing just enough give on Saddam's part - for now.

"This really puts the West in a pickle," Tim Trevan, a former political adviser to UNSCOM in charge of eliminating Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, told Reuters. "It probably just delays things until the next crisis, most likely in the new year, when our attention is distracted by Kosovo or another sex scandal," he said.

For an Iraqi population weary from long years of deprivation, however, any reprieve is welcome. Soon after the Iraqi leadership signaled that it would cooperate again with weapons inspectors, the UN in Baghdad was treated to a rare surprise. Iraqis driving past its headquarters on the outskirts of Baghdad blew their horns in relief, and in apparent support for the UN's role in helping to stave off, at least for the moment, an attack that the Pentagon promised would be "more than a pinprick."

"That's a welcome change," said one UN staffer in Baghdad, though it may prove ephemeral if Baghdad reneges. US forces are deploying in the Persian Gulf to the highest level in five years.

Not everyone in Baghdad is smiling, however, as Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and his top advisers count the gains and losses of the latest crisis that brought Iraq close to war.

Due to a series of miscalculations, diplomats and analysts say, Iraq's past strategy of playing off Security Council divisions seems to have backfired. Instead, Iraq found unanimous condemnation of its Aug. 5 and Oct. 31 decisions to end cooperation with inspectors.

"They might have thought that they would take advantage of [Council] disunity," says a senior Western official. "But instead they ended up unifying it."

The unexpectedly rapid Iraqi climbdown after an unusually quick escalation of the crisis was an official positive response Saturday to a letter from Mr. Annan appealing for Iraq to work with inspectors.

IRAQ asserts that its decision was "not out of fear of the aggressive American campaign." But diplomats in Baghdad say that the US and British military buildup and the very real threat of force - which Annan said compelled Iraq to back off during a similar standoff last February - forced Iraq's hand this time, too.

This confrontation boils down, on the Iraqi side, to linking continued cooperation with inspectors to the lifting of tough sanctions in place for eight years. Under terms of the 1991 cease-fire that ended the Gulf War, sanctions can't be lifted until the Security Council certifies Iraq is disarmed.

The US view boils down to forcing that compliance, rejecting any linkage with sanctions, and apparently including a strategic picture that prefers an Iraq without Saddam Hussein.

Despite strong dissent from many Iraq watchers, US lawmakers have authorized $97 million to back "democratic" Iraqi opposition groups to create a viable alternative - further evidence, to Iraqi officials, that no matter how far they comply, the US will never allow sanctions to be lifted until the regime changes.

"We don't see a light at the end of the tunnel," says Iraq's Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz. "There's another tunnel."

This cat-and-mouse game is now an oft-repeated pattern, though few believe that, if the last details of Iraq's clandestine weapons programs are to be revealed, there will be no further crises.

The risks of continued defiance this time could be severe, however, targeting sites suspected by some Western officials and inspectors of hiding any remaining weapons of mass destruction or the means to make them.

The UN Special Commission (UNSCOM), charged with rooting out and destroying such weapons, reports that 817 of Iraq's 819 Scud missiles are accounted for, and that the nuclear and chemical files are nearly closed. But questions remain about biological weapons, details of which were hidden from UNSCOM for years by Iraqi concealment efforts.

The last major allied bombardment of Iraq took place in 1991, when a 42-day air campaign helped oust occupying Iraqi troops from Kuwait. Those strikes, however, hit few such targets. US officials say that their intelligence today is much better.

The stated US aim is to "degrade" Iraq's ability to threaten its neighbors. But a broader aim this time, posits one European diplomat in Baghdad, may be to "break the back of the regime."

From Iraq's point of view, an initial scorecard so far for Iraq might read like this. On the negative side:

* Iraq's decision to end weapons inspections was taken the day after its friends on the Security Council helped approve a "comprehensive review" of compliance. Seen as a snub, the Iraqi move compelled even France and Russia to condemnation.

"There is a long history of Saddam Hussein misjudging the thinking of outside powers, as he did when he invaded Kuwait in 1990," Said Aburish, a Palestinian author and former adviser to the Iraqi government, told Reuters.

* Widespread Arab sympathy to end sanctions has been growing for years, especially among those that want do business with Iraq, and see sanctions hurting the Iraqi people - not its leadership. Yet this time Gulf Arab states, Egypt, and Syria together agreed that Iraq would be "solely responsible" for any US attack.

Though Iraq still commands strong support from the Arab "street" across the region, its constant maneuvering seems to have frustrated Arab leaders.

* Of critical importance, analysts say, is how massive strikes might play with beleaguered Iraqis. "People say that if the bombing is short, there will be no reaction," says a Western official. "But if the bombing is long, the population could do something to express their despair."

Many Iraqis say they are resigned to bombing, have made few preparations for attack and expected a last-minute deal. "Iraqis feel that they are the victims of everything," the official adds. "So strikes could be dangerous for the leadership - it is in their interest to divert them."

The positive side of the scorecard, for Iraq, is much shorter:

* Iraq's letter to Annan said that Iraq's decision to end cooperation was "not to sever the relationship" but to "end the suffering of its embargoed people" by codifying a lifting of sanctions. This dispute put the question of linkage at center stage.

Iraq may have calculated, as one Western official says, that a rush to war was unlikely because "it will be a pity that there would be a war just because there is no official mention of lifting the embargo.

But another view holds that that attacks may have been part of the plan to gain sympathy. "[Saddam Hussein's] calculation is that he doesn't have a great deal to lose," says Mr. Aburish.

Without targeting the leader, "any attack on the country won't hurt him personally and may eventually help him."

* And of key importance to the Iraqis is the personal intervention of Annan, whose visit to Baghdad in February fundamentally changed Iraq's way of dealing with the UN. As a measure of "preventive diplomacy," Annan created a special representative to serve as a top-level political link and safety valve for both sides so that crises could be defused quickly, at the highest level.

That strategy worked this time as it has several times before, says that diplomat, Prakash Shah. Iraq used Annan, he says, as "the key" to solving the crisis. The resulting sigh of relief from some Iraqis found its voice in sporadic blaring of car horns outside.

* UN correspondent Minh T. Vo in New York contributed to this article.

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