Broken Spirits

Isolated and impoverished, Iraqis must endure Saddam and the U.S. missile attack designed to unnerve him

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"Iraq is like a criminal sentenced to a very long prison term," says a diplomat in Baghdad. "Whatever they do, it's not enough to make a difference." Under Security Council Resolution 687, the U.N. could reconsider economic sanctions if Iraq destroyed its weapons of mass destruction. "But the U.N. keeps raising the bar they have to jump over," says another diplomat. "Now they are being required to comply with more resolutions passed after 687." Outstanding issues include U.N. insistence on helicopter flights over Baghdad and the placing of surveillance cameras in weapons facilities.

Iraqi officials say they have been trying to settle their differences with the U.S. since Bill Clinton was inaugurated. "Some of us thought Clinton would concentrate on domestic policy and ease the pressure on us," says a high-ranking Iraqi official. But Saddam's charm offensive, which included a pledge not to challenge aircraft over no-fly zones in southern and northern Iraq, found no favor in Washington. "The Iraqis were hoping that sooner or later, if they did not provoke Washington, the U.S. and its Arab allies would realize they need a strong Iraq to counterbalance Iran," says a diplomat in Baghdad. The Iraqis were bitterly disappointed by the new U.S. policy of "dual containment" enunciated by Martin Indyk, senior director for Near East and South Asian affairs at the National Security Council. He smashed Iraqi hopes that the West and other Arabs would once again build Iraq up as a bulwark against Iran. Indyk argued that Iraq and Iran were equally inimical to American interests in the Middle East, and suggested that the U.S. back the ineffective Iraqi opposition-in-exile.

But if Iraq was seeking better relations with the U.S., why would it plot to assassinate George Bush? Though most found the circumstantial evidence compiled by U.S. intelligence to be compelling, Iraqi officials claim the plot was fabricated by the Kuwaitis and seized upon by Clinton to raise his standing at home -- a suspicion widely shared by foreign diplomats in Baghdad, who harbor reservations about U.S. Ambassador Madeleine Albright's presentation to the Security Council. "The proof given by the Americans was not very convincing," said the senior diplomat. "Confessions of people still on trial are not acceptable."

"In the 2 1/2 years since the Gulf War, American policy toward Iraq has been ineffective," notes a European diplomat. "They were aiming to get Saddam Hussein out of power. They have not. They wanted to compensate Kuwait and finance U.N. operations through oil sales; they have not. Furthermore, American propaganda has failed to convince the Iraqi people that the sanctions are the fault of their own government."

So despite the Tomahawks that hit Baghdad last week, Saddam is likely to remain in power, even as his people become more dispirited. Says a diplomat in Iraq: "The more you beat him, the stronger he becomes." That is a dilemma Bill Clinton seems no closer to resolving than George Bush was.

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