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-
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
Also, two weeks ago, an Iraqi military plane reportedly violated
Saudi Arabia's air space, in what some US officials saw as an
effort to roil the US during the United Nations' Millennial Summit.
"[Saddam's] engaged in quite a bit of saber rattling as of late,"
says Lt. Col. Dave Lapan, a Pentagon spokesman.
But Iraq probably has the potential to do the most damage to the
US through its oil production. In recent comments printed in the
Iraqi state-controlled press, Saddam has urged OPEC members not to
kowtow to the US by increasing oil production. He said the US wants
"the price of oil to be suitable for it and not for others."
Even if Iraq alone closed its valves, the oil-sensitive US
economy would suffer.
For the past decade, the US has struggled with Saddam - and with
how best to achieve their stated goal of removing him from office. …