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Iraq: Saddam Hussein's Grip On Power Seen Firm

A decade after the United States and its coalition allies forced Iraqi troops to withdraw from Kuwait, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's grip on power appears to remain firm. On the 10th anniversary of Iraq's military defeat in the Gulf War, a panel of U.S. foreign policy experts gathered in Washington to examine what is likely to happen in light of a new American president taking office. RFE/RL correspondent Frank T. Csongos reports.

Washington, 22 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Independent U.S. foreign policy experts say Iraqi President Saddam Hussein appears to be firmly in control 10 years after his country's military defeat in the Gulf War.

Experts from the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, met Wednesday to examine events since the Gulf War ended, on 27 February 1991, and what options the United States might have in dealing with Iraq. They agreed that despite military punishment and continued economic sanctions, Saddam Hussein is less isolated today than he has been since Desert Storm, a code name for the allied military action.

Philip Gordon, a senior fellow at Brookings, said the economic sanctions imposed by the United Nations are not working.

"We have sanctions -- which are meant to be our tool either to change the regime or at least keep it in the box -- crumbling."

Gordon said Iraq has been able to increase oil exports by bypassing the UN-sponsored oil-for-food program designed to prevent Saddam Hussein from using revenues for weapons. He said an Iraqi oil pipeline to Syria provides significant amount of money to Baghdad.

The discussions in Washington took place just days after U.S. President George W. Bush ordered a military strike against radar defenses outside Baghdad. It was the first such attack near the Iraqi capital in more than two years. Bush said the strike was routine and meant to defend U.S. and British aircraft patrolling the southern no-fly zone. The U.S. military said the radar sites are used to track allied aircraft, making them more vulnerable to Iraqi missiles.

There were published reports that the strike took place late Friday in order to avoid civilian casualties, particularly among Chinese technicians reportedly working in Iraq.

The State Department said U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell told China's new ambassador to Washington yesterday (21 February) that the U.S. is concerned by reports of Chinese technicians working in Iraq in possible violation of UN sanctions.

Spokesman Richard Boucher told reporters Powell raised U.S. concerns about this issue when he met Ambassador Yang Jiechi.

"The secretary took the opportunity also to raise our concerns about Chinese workers in Iraq -- [in] the context of compliance with the UN Security Council resolutions. And he mentioned the approach that we made in January to raise these specific concerns and said we were looking for a response."

Boucher said the U.S. raised the same issue last month with the outgoing ambassador, Li Zhaoxing, and was still expecting a response. However, Boucher declined to state definitively that the U.S. knew of Chinese technicians in Iraq.

"We have told the Chinese that we insist on full implementation of all relevant UN resolutions. Enforcing the sanctions regime and minimizing Saddam's threat is a vital interest of ours and one which we share with the other people in the region and the Perm Five (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council). We have committed a lot of effort to that over the past decade and will continue to raise it."

Next Monday, Powell is scheduled to begin a visit to Middle East and Gulf countries. The event coincides with a meeting between UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Iraqi Foreign Minister Mohammad Said al-Sahhaf in New York. Key themes in these meetings are expected to be the return of UN weapons inspectors to Iraq and the future of UN sanctions against Baghdad.

Boucher said the U.S. seeks to ensure that the sanctions achieve their original purpose -- to keep Iraq from getting weapons of mass destruction and the money to acquire them.

"We have been discussing the issue of Iraq and sanctions and the threat that Iraq poses to the people of the region with a variety of visitors to Washington."

At the Brookings gathering, the experts called Powell's planned visit a good beginning, an opportunity to coordinate a common policy toward Iraq.

They said it appears President George W. Bush might be less reluctant to use U.S. power against Saddam Hussein than former President Bill Clinton.

Michael O'Hanlon, a Brookings senior fellow, said it is difficult to imagine Saddam Hussein feeling emboldened by the knowledge that the United States could promptly deploy 200,000 to 300,000 troops to oppose him, if Baghdad tried to threaten Kuwait or Saudi Arabia. He said such a potential force would surely retain powerful deterrent capabilities. (Persian Service Washington correspondent Homayoun Majd contributed to this report)