PRESIDENT Saddam Hussein's defiance over United Nations inspection of Iraqi military sites comes on the heels of a strengthening of his power base in Baghdad, Middle East analysts and diplomats say.
The Iraqi president is using this period when world attention is focused mainly on changes in the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia "to test the United States and its allies - to see how much Iraq can get away with," says a senior Iraqi traveling overseas.
For the past two weeks Iraq has not allowed UN helicopters to fly unrestricted in search of sites where weapons of mass destruction are made or where they have been deployed. Iraqi Foreign Minister Ahmed Hussein al-Samaraei headed to New York this weekend to talk with UN officials about the inspections issue. Under the Gulf war cease-fire agreement, Iraq is obliged to declare and destroy all such weapons.
But the Iraqi leader is not seeking another conflict, the senior Iraqi says, and last week's threat by United States President Bush to use force to back UN inspections is expected to elicit a new policy in Baghdad.
Saddam's defiance on UN inspections began at about the same time he was visibly consolidating support - including the dismissal of Saadoun Hammadi, Iraq's prime minister. Mr. Hammadi is reported to be the one man in the regime to have had the courage to challenge and question Saddam's policies.
Iraqi sources say Hammadi's sacking was part of a reshuffling that will see members of Saddam's family and party loyalists moved into an increasing number of top jobs. The Iraqi president already has placed several members of his family in top government positions, the security establishment, and the Baath Party. The defense and interior portfolios, for example, are held by Saddam's cousins.
Hammadi, a Western-educated economist, had been appointed six months earlier with a mandate to rebuild the Iraqi economy. But the prime minister reportedly knew he could do little to improve his economy while Iraq remains a pariah to the rest of the world.
"Mr. Hammadi was the only intellectual in the Cabinet," says an Iraqi academic living abroad. "The others were all party thugs and loyalists of Saddam. He was the one who had the …