WASHINGTON -- The 10th anniversary of the liberation of Kuwait is fast approaching, and Secretary of State Colin Powell will be there to help the Kuwaitis celebrate Iraq's defeat. But as the milestone looms, the Iraqis are talking as though they are the ones who are entitled to exult.
Iraq says it won the war, not the one that Powell will glorify on his Feb. 26 visit to Kuwait, but the war waged since then for the hearts and minds of Arabs.
An article Monday in the authoritative Baghdad publication Al-Thawrah predicted Powell will come up empty-handed when, starting next week, he tours Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the Palestinian territories, Syria and Jordan, in addition to Kuwait, in hopes of reinvigorating U.N. economic sanctions against Iraq.
''He will be disappointed and frustrated and he will then be forced to cover up his disappointment and frustration by saying that the Arab countries back the United States and support its policies toward Iraq,'' the article said.
That is not totally a case of Iraqi bluster. There is no denying that support for the sanctions has been eroding steadily, including in those countries that stood with the United States against Iraq in Operation Desert Storm a decade ago.
Egypt's foreign minister, Amr Moussa, said recently, ''We can't expect that the people of Iraq (can) live under sanctions forever. ... Since the war, Arab public opinion has moved 180 degrees.''
To the extent that widespread suffering exists in his country, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has successfully been able to blame U.N. Security Council sanctions.
The Clinton administration tried mightily to persuade the world that Saddam was responsible, calling attention to his penchant for building palaces for himself and to how Iraqi oil exports have grown; they now exceed pre-Desert Storm levels.
British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, whose government is one of the few that has stood with the United States, said last week after a meeting with Powell that Saddam's regime imports 10,000 bottles of Scotch every month. He wondered why Saddam doesn't use the money to buy baby food. These arguments do not seem to have resonated.
For years, the goal of American policy in Iraq has been to create conditions for changing the regime in Baghdad. On that front, the news is not good either
CIA Director George Tenet, testifying before Congress last week, said Saddam ''has grown more confident in his ability to hold on to his power. He maintains a tight handle on internal unrest, despite the erosion of his overall military capabilities.
''Saddam's confidence has been buoyed by his success in quieting the Shia insurgency in the south, which last year had reached a level unprecedented since the domestic uprising in 1991,'' Tenet said.
Iraq appears to be the most difficult foreign policy issue inherited by the Bush administration. No U.N. weapons inspectors have visited Iraq in more than two years, and there is concern that Saddam has been using this opening to develop chemical and biological weaponry, along with the missiles to deliver them.
The Iraqis have been able to smuggle oil outside the legal oil-for-food program with increasing impunity. Russia and France, oblivious to U.S. appeals, seem eager to end U.N. sanctions. And despite U.N. curbs, cargo-carrying commercial flights have been arriving regularly in Baghdad.
Still, Powell senses the situation is salvageable. He told CBS' ''Face the Nation'' on Sunday he believes the coalition that defeated Iraq can be reassembled.
''I think we can rally again,'' he said, contending that a few planes arriving in Baghdad from time to time without authorization does not signify failure.
Powell, who was former President Bush's top military adviser during the Gulf War, signaled the strategy he will take with him when he travels to the region this month. He said he will remind the countries that Saddam isn't threatening the United States but those nations themselves, ''every nation around him.'' All nations, he said, have an obligation to make sure he complies with the U.N. resolutions he agreed to a decade ago.
George Gedda has covered foreign affairs for The Associated Press since 1968.
On the Net: State Department's Near East bureau: http://www.state.gov/www/regions/nea/index.html
Library of Congress country notes: http://lcweb2.loc.gov/frd/csquery.html
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