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Saddam's rise puts pressure on US officials

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Iraqi President Saddam Hussein appears to be testing US mettle just as the Clinton administration comes to a close and America occupies itself with presidential elections.

In recent weeks, Saddam has threatened two US allies - Kuwait and Saudi Arabia - and tried to urge other oil-producing countries not to help the US and Europe with their soaring fuel costs.

Those actions have put US officials in a bind - because they don't want a military engagement so late in President Clinton's term and they don't want Iraq to play a role in the tight election between Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

"The National Security Council and the central command have spent a lot of time worrying about this," says a source familiar with US-Iraq policy.

The sense in Washington that Saddam is up to something has been growing since early August, when the Iraqi military held exercises to commemorate the 10-year anniversary of its invasion of Kuwait. Early this week Secretary of Defense William Cohen said US forces are ready to act if Iraq takes "any kind of aggressive action."

In the past, Iraq has used transition periods in Washington as a time to provoke, says Patrick Clawson, an expert on Iraq at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

On Mr. Clinton's first day in office in 1993, for example, the US bombed Iraq. "He's trying to test the US in the last few months of the presidency," says Mr. Clawson. "We're not yet sure what form this will take."

One possibility is that Saddam is thumping his chest in an attempt to get the international community to ease trade sanctions, analysts say. The sanctions prohibit shipments of most goods to Iraq, with the exception of essential food and medicine.

Already Iraq has heightened tension in the Gulf region by accusing Kuwait of stealing their oil (a charge that Kuwait denies). Similar threats preceded the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait a decade ago.

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