Special to The Japan Times UMM QASR, southern Iraq — The Iraqi-Kuwaiti frontier officially ranks as one of the world’s most dangerous flash points. But these days, the only threat to man or beast beneath a ferocious sun is the snakes and scorpions that inhabit these burning sandy wastes. “This is the world’s most successful peacekeeping operation,” said Ireland’s Major Gen. John Vize, who commands the small United Nations force that observers and patrols it — successful by the yardstick that his men have almost nothing serious to do.

UNIKOM is there because on Aug. 3 1990, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein sent his army across this frontier.

The Zionist takeover of Palestine aside, Hussein thereby dealt the greatest single blow to the existing Middle Eastern order since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, when most of its frontiers were drawn. He posed a dire and immediate threat to the rest of the Persian Gulf and its fabulous oil riches, lifeblood of the industrialized world. He threw the Arabs into unprecedented turmoil. U.S. President George Bush called him “the new Hitler,” and five months later, in Operation Desert Storm, an American-led coalition force liberated Kuwait and swept deep into southern Iraq, bringing the Saddam regime to the very edge of collapse.

Could it happen again? Kuwait is obsessed with the possibility that it could. It has lavished billions of petro-dollars on its defenses since the invasion.

The international community lends some credence to Kuwaiti fears, in the shape of the 194 UNIKOM personnel — backed up, on the Kuwaiti side, by an infantry battalion — who man observation posts and patrol the demilitarized zone between the two countries. Unarmed, they are symbolic too. They monitor land, sea and air violations of the frontier. But Iraq commits very few of those, far fewer, in fact, than the Gulf-based Anglo-American warplanes in regular action over Iraq. Their operations are not authorized by the U.N. “That,” said a British squadron leader who wished to remain anonymous, “puts me in the odd position of totting up the transgressions of my own side.”

The very existence of this “low-level war” — as Pentagon officials have called it — only comes to the passing attention of the outside world when Iraqi civilians get killed in sufficient numbers for the Iraqi government to make a protest about it. It began in Dec. 1998, when Iraq air defenses were ordered to fire on U.S. and British planes enforcing “no-fly zones,” and they, in turn, were authorized to relax their rules of engagement. Missiles and high-precision bombs have been unleashed on hundreds of military targets scattered across the country.

It is the latest Anglo-American strategy for the “containing” of Hussein, which has been going on since Desert Storm. Designed to “degrade” his weaponry and demoralize his armed forces, it does not seem to bother him very much.

It would appear, indeed, that very little does. And if, 10 years on, this grim, deserted, hermetically sealed frontier symbolizes anything, it is surely Hussein’s indestructibility, and the menace which, so long as he is around, he will forever seem to represent. No ruler surely deserves a final reckoning like Hussein; none has been so adept at deferring it. However appalling the uses he has made of power, in his ability to seize and then perpetuate it, he has been one of the most successful despots of the 20th century, seemingly proof against all the disasters he has brought upon himself, his regime, his people and his neighbors.

And he is not merely surviving; the signs are that, if anything, he is now regaining strength. There is no better yardstick of that than his successful defiance of the U.N. endeavor to dismantle his weapons of mass destruction.

How does he manage it? Part of the answer lies in the terrifying charisma of the man himself, the omnipresence and total ruthlessness of the narrowly sectarian, family- and clan-based apparatus which he heads. But the other part begs yet another question: Does the U.S., the only party that could initiate a serious campaign to bring him down, really want to?

On the face of it, it does. Since the signing of the Iraqi Liberation Act in October 1998, it has been official policy that the United States should join forces with the Iraqi opposition, led by the Iraqi National Congress, to bring new and representative government to Iraq. But it took the U.S. a very long time to reach this position, and, even now, no one is more skeptical of its seriousness than the Iraqi opposition itself.

The skepticism is rooted in its bitter experience, its belief that Hussein is still very much there because the U.S. did not get rid of him when that would have been physically easiest and morally most acceptable. In the immediate aftermath of Desert Storm, it betrayed the great Shiite and Kurdish uprisings that President Bush had encouraged. U.S. soldiers were deep inside Iraq, poised to march on Baghdad itself; instead they virtually stood and watched as the elite Republican Guards crushed the rebels in an appalling blood bath.

The reasons which made the U.S. hold back then still exert a powerful influence today; The U.S. commander in the Persian Gulf has summed them up: “a weakened, fragmented, chaotic Iraq is more dangerous in the long run than a contained Saddam now.”

Yet if the past 10 years have taught anything, the INC contends, it is that, despite the risks, an uprising is the only serious way of bringing the despot down. It is obvious that other methods — sterile, static containment, ever more morally and politically dubious sanctions, military coups — simply do not work, and that to wait for his assassination or some such inherently unpredictable upheaval within the House of Hussein is liable to mean waiting for a very long time. An uprising is the only method that can be effectively planned, the only one in which the better the planning, the greater the resources thrown into it, the more likely it is to succeed.

Ahmad Chalabi, the INC boss, is the leading champion of an insurrection; operationally, he says, it should take the form of a phased, incremental, coordinated insurgency; starting in the Western-protected “safe haven” that already exists in the Kurdish north and in a new one to be established in the Shiite south, it would converge on Hussein’s power base in the Sunni Muslim heartlands.

If Chalabi had his way, the Kuwaiti border regions, close to Shiite population centers, would become part of that safe haven, of a heavy-weapons exclusion zone commensurate with the one already in force in the air.

But there is little chance, for the foreseeable future, that he will have his way. So far the Clinton administration will not even give his men weapons or military training, let alone persuade the Kuwaitis to take what, without cast-iron U.S. guarantees, would seem to them the almost insane risk of opening their territory to a Contra-style insurgency.

Hussein still around for yet another decade to come? Hard to believe, no doubt; but certainly no harder than the same forecast would have been a decade ago. But if he is, the achievement will have been so great, and the irredentist ambitions it is liable to have instilled in him so heady, that the Kuwaitis will be feeling even less secure than they do today. Then, snakes and scorpions will surely no longer be the only thing the UNIKOM peacekeepers have to worry about.

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