What's Saddam's Game Plan?

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Protesters in Baghdad burn an American and an Israeli flag

A simple bureaucratic encounter in New York today may hold some important hints about how far Saddam Hussein plans to go to dodge a U.S. invasion. A senior Iraqi delegation is due to meet U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan and chief arms inspector Hans Blix to discuss the stalled inspection program, which has been in limbo since Iraq denied officials access to key sites in 1998. That action triggered four days of U.S. and British bombing followed by a four-year stalemate. Saddam had hoped the deadlock would eventually force the international community to lift crippling sanctions without him having to readmit inspectors. But that was before the "axis of evil" speech. Unable to link Baghdad to the September 11 attacks, President Bush has made Iraq's weapons of mass destruction program Exhibit A in the case for a war to overthrow Saddam — and that has given Hussein an overriding incentive to reach out to the U.N. for talks about restoring the inspection regime.

While the Bush administration remains locked in fierce internal debate over the how, who, when and what-comes-after of overthrowing Saddam, the "whether" and "why" appear to be a done deal. Vice President Cheney is in the Middle East this week trying to rally Arab support on the assumption they'll fall into step once it's clear that Washington is in it to win it. And while Britain initially balked at the "axis of evil" speech, it has since begun preparing its own people for the inevitability of war. Prime Minister Tony Blair last week abandoned all equivocation on Iraq and echoed the Bush administration's approach: "We have got to act on [Iraq]," said Blair, "because if we don't act we may find out too late the potential for destruction." The British leader heads for Washington in April for what Downing Street is spinning as a council of war.

The political and legal case for attacking Iraq will be made on the basis of Saddam's weapons of mass destruction program, which the Bush administration says is a "clear and present danger." This has the advantage of being an issue on which the regime in Baghdad has consistently defied U.N. Security Council resolutions. But it potentially gives Saddam the option of dodging a beating by resuming unconditional compliance with the arms inspection system. That's exactly what Iraq's supporters at the Security Council, Russia and China, are urging Saddam to do.

While restoring inspections makes tactical sense for Saddam, it's not that easy for a dictator who believes his weapons of mass destruction are the key to his survival. In recent congressional testimony, former U.N. inspection official Charles Duelfer recalled a chilling 1995 discussion with Iraqi officials in which he was told that Iraq had loaded chemical and biological weapons in missiles and bombs in 1991 and issued standing orders to fire them if U.S. troops moved on Baghdad. "The Iraqis stated that these actions apparently deterred the United States from going to Baghdad," said Duelfer. Saddam believed it was his poison gases and anthrax that saved him in 1991 — and with the U.S. having declared "regime change" as its primary objective in Iraq, Saddam may be loath to give up what he considers his trump card by submitting to unfettered inspections.

Iraq's retaining chemical or biological weapons as a defense of last resort highlights one of a number of tough calculations facing the Bush administration as it seeks to come up with a plan to oust Saddam and replace him with a stable and friendly regime. The President has reportedly asked his advisors to come up with a war plan by mid-April, although everything from assembling a massive invasion force to securing the consent of the vital allies suggests that D-Day might not come before next winter.

Right now the focus is on U.N. resolutions and the arms inspection regime, and it's safe to assume that the U.S. will be in no hurry to take yes for an answer. Washington is likely to demand the strictest inspection terms to prevent Saddam leading the international community on yet another dance of deception. Blix is expected to lay down a strict interpretation of the Security Council's requirements in his meeting with Iraqi officials, and has vowed to offer no "discounts." But the Iraqi demeanor will be an indicator of Saddam's game plan for the prelude.