Why Saddam Likes Getting Bombed

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Three US F-15 fighters flying on patrol in the "no-fly zone" over southern Iraq

The symbolic timing of Friday's U.S. air strikes on Iraq could not have been worse. Hours after U.S.-made F-16s flown by the Israeli air force demolished a Palestinian police station in Ramallah in retaliation for the latest terrorist outrage in Jerusalem, U.S. Air Force F-16s bombed Iraqi air defense sites. This came at a time when Saddam Hussein has been doing his utmost, with considerable success, to paint himself as the Arab savior of the Palestinians and his American foes as the as the co-conspirator of the Israelis. Whatever damage the air raids did to Iraqi air defenses may be more than compensated for in the political dividend for Saddam.

The U.S. is aware of the problem; indeed, it had been reported earlier in the week that it held off on a more robust strike in the belief that its benefits would not outweigh the negative political fallout in the Arab world. The latest raids are almost certain to amplify the already rampant anti-American sentiment on the streets of even the most pro-Western Arab capitals, and that's good news for the likes of Saddam and Osama Bin Laden.

Iraq policy going nowhere

More importantly, the latest raids are symptomatic of an Iraq policy that's going nowhere. The reason for the strike was that the Iraqis have been more aggressively targeting U.S. and British warplanes patrolling the "no-fly" zones declared by the Western powers at the end of the Gulf War. Saddam makes no secret of the fact that he's trying to shoot one down in the hope of forcing the allies to retreat from Iraqi airspace. The bad news for Washington, of course, is that most of its allies are at best agnostic on maintaining the "no-fly" zones, which today are maintained only by the U.S. and Britain. Nor is there any serious support for the U.S. policy of trying to overthrow Saddam by funneling money to the opposition Iraqi National Congress — the INC is not exactly taken seriously in the capitals of Saddam's Arab neighbors, whose support would be essential to any successful insurrection.

Worse still, the U.S. has been unable to muster the requisite international support to reinvigorate sanctions against Iraq by making them "smarter" — allowing the resumption of normal trade with Baghdad to assuage concerns about the toll 11 years of sanctions have taken on ordinary Iraqis, but tightening up controls on the sale of weapons or technologies that would improve the Iraqi war machine. Russia blocked the changes when the U.N. Security Council met to review sanctions against Iraq at the end of June, and the Arab neighbors on whom policing such "smart" sanctions would depend have been less than sanguine about the changes. Where Washington is pushing for revisions in the sanctions regime, most of its allies in the Arab world — under pressure from their own streets, which are far more hostile to the U.S. than to Saddam — would be quite content to abandon them altogether.

Grist to Saddam's mill

Saddam, of course, is happy to mine this rich propaganda seam. He maximizes the suffering of his own people under sanctions by restricting the flow of food and medicines that are actually available, knowing that this simply builds pressure on Arab regimes to break with Washington on the blockade. Similarly his more aggressive air defenses — Saddam knows that by turning on his radar and firing SAMs he's going to draw the fire of U.S. and British war planes. That's exactly what he wants — at best he'll eventually hit a plane and cause a political crisis over the "no-fly zone" policy in the West; at worst he'll simply remind the Arab world that he's still the prime target of Israel's best friend. And as long as Washington remains committed to the "no-fly zone," it finds itself forced into this fruitless bombing regimen.

During the Gulf War and after, America has always needed Arab support to mount a viable campaign against Saddam Hussein. And the perceived U.S. role in the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict precludes such support, almost by definition. No wonder, then, that Saddam makes a point of sending thousands of dollars to the family of every Palestinian slain in confrontations with the Israelis. Because the Iraqi leader may well have been the biggest beneficiary of the intifada.