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Saddam's corner gets a little smaller

Baghdad is no place to be politically incorrect. The members of parliament who last week whooped and hollered against Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, not to mention the Anglo-American devils, were running no risk. One man wrapped it up: "I demand the annulment of all the related resolutions passed by the [UN] Security Council, including the recognition of Kuwait and its new borders." But the next day, parliament approved a much milder declaration. It was as if President Saddam Hussein, while clearly authorizing what was said, was suddenly lowering the decibel level. The shouting had become pretty loud, with him calling on the people of Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt to overthrow their governments; and these, in turn, urging a revolution against him in Iraq. For now, the rhetoric is back to poisonous normalcy, as after earlier crescendos. Nothing has actually changed - but this episode is different. On previous occasions, Saddam has come out of his crises with a net gain. He not only survived the Gulf War against all expectation, he also consolidated his power and immediately crushed rebellions in the north and south. Forced to accept the humiliation of imposed disarmament and surveillance, as well as an unprecedented economic blockade, he showed Houdini-like talent in escaping his bonds. He could have ended the blockade in short order by total disclosure of his arms programs. But, with the sovereignty the victors chose to leave him, he maneuvered to have both arms and money. Over the past eight years, Saddam has defied orders of the Security Council and punishing attacks by the US and Britain. He has gradually rid himself of the UN Special Commission set up to ensure he has no weapons of mass destruction. It's also clear now that the planned UN mechanism for ongoing monitoring and verification will never be realized. While puncturing the blockade to get money for his own purposes, he has used the undeniably pitiable condition into which he's plunged his people to attract political and economic help. The ruler of Iraq has, at present, the right to sell some $10 billion worth of oil annually in order to import a wide range of humanitarian aid through the UN. And he sees a strong disposition inside and outside the Security Council to relax if not to end the economic sanctions. At some point he might shake off the tight controls that come with UN aid by ending the program and falling back on Iraq's enormous oil reserves which already give him enviable credit. Saddam's virtuosity under pressure has made him appear crazy as a fox. What he's doing now, though, seems mainly crazy. It's hard to see what he gets and not hard to gauge what he loses. Renewing Iraq's claim to Kuwait revives the almost universal outrage that met his 1990 invasion of Kuwait. It ends his pretense of being the injured party, fighting for Iraq's rights against Anglo-American imperialism. His calls for revolution are not welcome in Arab capitals. And, members of the Security Council, where he won so much support for ending sanctions, will not thank him for throwing their resolutions back in their faces. Conversely, Saddam's latest gambit may well reinforce the Anglo-American commitment and reduce opposition to it in the Gulf states. Which raises the likelihood of continual air strikes. Such a demonstration of determination over time is more likely to hurt than to help Saddam. It might conceivably fill the gap that has haunted Western policy, the lack of a legitimate way to remove Saddam. Hitting military targets could drive a wedge between Saddam and the military. Only the military has whatever chance there is of dealing with him. Quick help to them when, and if, the soldiers act could bring the definitive solution. Richard C. Hottelet, a longtime foreign correspondent for CBS, writes on world affairs.

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