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MOSCOW — Foreign-policy alignments have gone mad worldwide. A bizarre diplomatic coalition consisting of Russia, China, France and Germany now confronts the United States, Britain, Italy and Poland. Who could have imagined such a combination just 10 years ago besides readers of political thrillers? Now the only person who laughs at the most improbable conflict is Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, for it is he who has provoked the great divide in world politics.

The situation is tough because if the U.S. goes to war over the objections of Moscow, Beijing, Paris and Berlin, the entire Mideast situation will likely deteriorate.

A war against Iraq would be difficult in any case due to the size of the country, its well-trained armed forces and its harsh terrain. In the war on Afghanistan, the U.S. had a local ally — the Northern Alliance — that did the bulk of the ground fighting, possibly saving thousands of American lives.

There is no such force in Iraq, and even if a number of Iraqi military units can be persuaded to support the invasion, they will be too disorganized to act independently. So we are talking about war that would involve large numbers of U.S. ground troops — and therefore a significant number of casualties. If military hardships are accompanied by a diplomatic crisis, neither the international nor the domestic position of the U.S. government will be enviable.

As long as U.N. Security Council members Russia, China and France, which possess veto power over any U.N. resolution, oppose a war on Iraq, the council will be unable to approve a commencement of hostilities. The United Nations is not a world government, but its word still carries weight. In addition, there are a number of smaller nations whose position in the event of a war on Iraq should be of concern to Washington.

Throughout the military campaign in Afghanistan — a time when most countries supported the U.S.-led war on terror — the Americans were able to use bases in adjoining countries. Now the situation has drastically changed. Even Turkey, a North Atlantic Treaty Organization member that the U.S. saved from Soviet aggression 50 years ago, now refuses to allow U.S. troops to use its territory in an attack on Iraq for fear of stirring up Kurdish guerrillas.

If Turkey maintains this position, it will not be easy for U.S. troops to invade the northern parts of Iraq. And war in Iraq would not merely involve intimidation and a demonstration of force, but rather the most difficult part of any war — gaining control of enemy territory.

Iraq’s other northern neighbors, Syria and Iran, are as likely to host American troops as they are to send a Christmas card to the White House. And most other candidates for hosting American troops look far less appealing than Turkey because of the considerable distance between them and Iraq. But it seems that all potential ad-hoc allies are to be found within the borders of the former Soviet Union.

Unfortunately, the nations in the Caucasus region bordering Iraq have been struggling with each other since the breakup of the Soviet Union 12 years ago. Moreover, militant Islam has been playing a steady, destabilizing role in the area. Chechnya — now a battlefield between Russian forces and Chechen separatist fighters — is considered a hot spot for international terrorism.

By the way, Chechnya is one of the reasons why Russian President Vladimir Putin is unwilling to support U.S. President George W. Bush’s Iraq crusade: Russia is unlikely to benefit from the fall of Hussein, and Islamic fundamentalists operating in Russian territory cannot be ignored. The last thing Moscow wants is Chechen terrorists staging another hostage crisis to avenge a U.S.-led war on Hussein.

There is one nation in the Caucasus that maintains good relations with Washington — Georgia, led by former Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze. Georgians have been fighting Muslims for centuries. One of the first things Shevardnadze did when he returned home after serving in Moscow was to get baptized and embrace Georgia’s patriotic, anti-Muslim tradition.

Shevardnadze is trying hard to get out from under Moscow’s smothering embrace. While helping America in Iraq would be a good way to promote his cause, it is questionable whether he can afford to alienate Georgian Muslims. Georgia is now confronted with a number of secession movements, and several are fighting under the green banner of Islam.

Another candidate mentioned is the Central Asian country of Turkmenistan. However, its dictatorial regime is difficult to deal with. Blessed with an abundance of oil and gas, Turkmenistan’s president-for-life, Saparmurat Niyazov — who has named months and days of the week after himself and his relatives — has become haughty and arrogant. When recently reproached by the U.S. for gross human rights violations, he angrily snapped that Washington should mind its own business.

In addition, Niyazov is not better than Hussein, and there is something to be said for solidarity among dictators. If and when Hussein is toppled, Niyazov can give him safe haven. Clearly, negotiations would be tough if the U.S. military wants to launch strikes against Iraq from Turkmenistan.

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