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Iraq: Crisis Enters Critical Stage

Prague, 3 February 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The Iraqi crisis has now entered a critical stage and much could depend on whether Washington and London are prepared to launch decisive action that will be sufficiently massive to topple the Iraqi leader -- or at least make Saddam believe that they are.

Tim Trevan, of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, was a special adviser to former U.N. weapons inspector Rolf Ekeus. He tells RFE/RL that the main element of the U.S.-led strategy seems to be to leave much "room for doubt" in Saddam's mind as to the precise nature of the military campaign being envisaged against him. But that doubt, in Trevan's opinion, will soon have to be replaced by fear. According to Trevan, the only thing that is likely to bring Saddam to the negotiating table will be if he starts to doubt whether he and his regime would survive a U.S.-led strike.

Trevan notes that Russia's latest embarrassment in its negotiations with Baghdad, with its announcement of a breakthrough that was later denied by the Iraqi leadership, is only the latest illustration of Moscow's lack of leverage with Saddam. According to Trevan, Iraq only used the intervention of Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov last November "as a face-saving way to back down" before the U.N. The important thing, says Trevan, is that "it wasn't Russian diplomacy that worked, it was the threat of military action." Now, he adds, "we're seeing that Russian diplomacy on this issue doesn't work."

A recent editorial in the Russian daily Izvestia made a similar point, saying the world had stopped believing Moscow could act as an impartial and more importantly, effective broker with Baghdad. Izvestia wrote that it was time for the Kremlin to "put a higher price on its own international prestige" and get out of what it called the "humiliating position" of trying to act as Iraq's savior.

That having been said, there are no easy choices for Moscow and coming around to the U.S. position is a diplomatic impossibility for the Kremlin. But Moscow may simply have to withdraw as the Anglo-American buildup continues in the Gulf.

With Albright's return to Washington tomorrow, the time draws near for a final game of brinkmanship leading either to an Iraqi climb-down, or an all-out military strike. Trevan is not keen to forecast the outcome. But if it comes to Saddam's ouster, he notes that the lack of a coherent opposition leader or party in Iraq would seem to preclude a popular revolution. A palace coup, he says, would then be the most likely outcome.