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Monday, 16 October, 2000, 15:44 GMT 16:44 UK
Analysis: Instability benefits Saddam Hussein
Saddam Hussein
Saddam has prospered since his Gulf War defeat
By Middle East analyst Gerald Butt

According to the West's post-Gulf War scenario, President Saddam Hussein should have disappeared off the Iraqi stage long ago.

Under no stretch of the imagination could western leaders have conceived that, a decade after the Gulf War, the Iraqi president would be taking credit for the safe release of Western hostages from a hijacked Saudi airliner.

Nor would it have seemed a possibility that Saddam Hussein would have the satisfaction of welcoming a stream of passenger planes arriving at Baghdad airport in defiance of UN sanctions.

To say he has defied the odds is an understatement.

Comfortably cushioned

Today, with oil prices at record highs and vast quantities of Iraqi crude and petroleum products being smuggled into Turkey and the Gulf, the Iraqi regime is comfortably cushioned against the effect of sanctions.

The same cannot be said for the Iraqi people.

A boy thanks Saddam for the safe return of his hijacked grandparents

With more and more Arab states reopening relations with Baghdad, and with UN weapons inspectors still unable to take up their duties again, the Iraqi leader must be feeling as confident as at any time since his disastrous decision to invade Kuwait in August 1990.

Sanctions are crumbling, President Saddam says with confidence. And it is true, circumstances have worked to his advantage.

Popular hero

The current anti-Israeli and anti-American mood in the Arab world has revived memories of how the Iraqi leader challenged the West after his invasion of Kuwait and how he fired Scud missiles at Israel.

For this, he is a popular hero among disaffected Arabs everywhere, not least the Palestinians.

Sympathy for the plight of Iraq, which is seen in the Arab world as suffering at the hands of the West, is increasing.

But the new buoyant mood of the Iraqi leader should be seen in context.

Leaders cautious

Arab leaders, in pressing for a thaw in relations with Baghdad, are careful to make a clear distinction between the Iraqi regime and the Iraqi people.

Even Yasser Arafat knows that it was the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and his subsequent decision to speak up for Saddam Hussein that left him weak and vulnerable, forcing him to start unequal negotiations with Israel.

Yasser Arafat
Yasser Arafat paid the price for backing Saddam
The compromises Mr Arafat made under pressure are the cause of much of the frustration and anger felt by the Palestinian people.

For their part, leaders of the Gulf states are still wary of what the Iraqi leader's regional ambitions may be.

Those advocating the re-establishment of relations are doing so because they feel it is better to deal with the devil you know, rather than have a political vacuum in Baghdad.

Posturing, not acting

Governments across the Arab world know that despite all Saddam Hussein's posturing and his promises of coming to the aid of the Palestinians, in the end there is little or nothing he can do.

They are equally aware that any repeat of his 1990 military adventure would once again bring catastrophe to the region.

None of this detracts from the fact that he remains in power, a worry and an irritant to the West, while a popular hero among the Arabs in the current anti-Western atmosphere in the region.

But as far as imagining any regional leadership role for the Iraqi leader, most Arabs know in their hearts that he is hardly the man they are looking for.

What the Palestinians want is an Arab leader who is ruthlessly realistic and determined enough to stand up for their rights.

They do not want one who, in continuing streams of bombast, still pretends that the Gulf War rout of 1991 was an historic victory for Iraq.

Gerald Butt, a former BBC Middle East Correspondent, is Senior Editor, Middle East Economic Survey (MEES)

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