The Iraqi ruler, if not quite sitting pretty, is certainly flushed with a succession of victories over his NATO foes in the past year. He has made a mockery of the sanctions the UN imposed after the 1991 Gulf War after ridding himself of the UN inspectors who held up his programs for the development of weapons of mass destruction. He has repaired his economic relationships with two important Arab nations, Egypt and Syria, as well as with Turkey, the Gulf emirates and Iran. He has raised the funds he needs for his illegal arms programs as well as for his regime and army. He has also built up military ties with Russia, China, Belarus, France and Serbia. He has come up with arrangements for smuggling oil out to world markets that the Americans have been unable to spike. Is it worth his while to risk all these achievements for the sake of going to war alongside Yasser Arafat?
On the face of it, as many Middle East experts argue, there is no reason why he should; he would appear to be too shrewd to toss all his gains on the Palestinian throw. Some believe he is indulging in brinkmanship to advance his strategic interests and will pull back from outright war at the crucial moment.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s experts are not so sure. A certain war dynamic has been building up since Arafat launched his uprising at the end of last September shortly after which Saddam moved six armored divisions westward with loud Jihad fanfare. Since then he has entered into strategic partnerships with both Arafat and the Syrian president Bashar Assad.
Arafat is the only one of the three determined to take his war with Israel to the limit; Assad would prefer a limited, controllable military showdown with Israel, but Saddam insists on both promising to fight to the finish as the price for his involvement; his partners demand the same commitment from him.
Early this year, the Iraqi ruler deployed his surface missile batteries in the west and also the south in battle formation. US and Israeli intelligence report signs that the Iraqi ruler has ordered missiles carrying biological and chemical warheads prepared in pre-operational array. Rumors that Iraq is capable of delivering at least one crude nuclear warhead have never been confirmed, even though they gained fresh currency during the high missile alert declared in Israel, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and US Middle East and Gulf forces early February.
There are also signs on the ground of Iraqi intelligence penetration in the Palestinian Authority areas of the West Bank, notably the hub town of Ramallah, whose Tanzim chief Marwan Bargouti has begun receiving a stipend from Saddam Hussein.
With all this strength lined up and so much at stake, Saddam will have to make his intentions known to the forthcoming Arab League summit in Amman. That will be the moment for him to decide whether to stay on the safe side of the brink, or step into the war abyss.
It is not entirely up to him. His two partners are capable of escalating the current violence to a level that forces him either to made good on his rhetoric or lose face. He is already caught up in the spiral. And at the moment, there is not a single power in the region or outside it capable of stopping him. There were indications in early February that Saddam was seriously considering a war initiative of his own. He would dearly love to inflict heavy casualties on the Israelis and undermine its strategic strength. US and Israeli intelligence watchers are of the opinion that, before even civilian casualties, he will seek to target Israel nuclear industry, the Dimona reactor, the factories manufacturing surface missiles and the military sites where Israel stocks its nuclear arsenal.
Another important consideration for Saddam Hussein is the abrupt loss of policy momentum in Washington. Since January 16, when US and British warplanes bombed Iraqi air defense installations and command posts near Baghdad, the follow-up action expected from the new Bush administration never materialized. The damage they wrought at the time was hardly worth the trouble. The impression gained in Baghdad is that Vice President Dick Cheney, who was the most eager of the new administration to mete out military punishment to Iraq, has cooled and turned his attention to the problems of China and Taiwan and the Koreas. Statements from Washington indicate a softening on the question of restoring tough sanctions.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly ‘s Washington sources report that the apparent loss of Washington’s interest in Baghdad is not the result of any clear policy decision, but rather a delay for a power struggle to play out between Vice President Cheney and secretary of state Powell. Furthermore, his most implacable Arab enemy, Saudi Arabia, is ruled by a sick king and is still licking its wounds from a protracted succession fight.
It is up to the Iraqi dictator now to decide how to exploit this relaxed pressure against him. He has never relinquished the urge to take revenge for his defeat in the 1991Gulf War, or for Israeli’s air bombing of his nuclear reactor ten years earlier.