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Would Saddam gain from attack on Iraq?

To many in the West, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's defiance of U.N. weapons inspections looks like reckless brinkmanship, an exercise in self-delusion that could well culminate in a punishing U.S.-led air attack on the pillars of his regime.

Such characterizations, however, ignore the benefits that already have accrued to the Iraqi leader during his latest standoff with Washington - and the distinct possibility that an inconclusive bombing campaign could actually strengthen his grip on power, according to Arab officials and analysts and European diplomats in the region.As a result of the latest crisis, Saddam Hussein has enhanced diplomatic ties between Iraq and other Arab countries, including such longtime foes as Egypt and Syria, sharply boosted his stature among the Arab masses and driven a wedge between the United States and Russia, whose defense minister warned Thursday that U.S. military action against Baghdad could cause dangerous strains in relations between the two U.N. Security Council members.

Anxiety also is building in the region about what might happen after the smoke clears from a U.S.-led attack, especially one that causes heavy civilian casualties. "The most likely scenario is, OK, a lot of things will be destroyed, and then what?" asked a European diplomat in the Middle East whose government differs with U.S. policy toward Iraq. "Saddam pops out of his bunker, dusts off his jacket and says, `OK, I won. I'm still alive.' "

Under this scenario, a unilateral U.S.-led attack would shatter the international consensus on maintaining trade sanctions against Iraq and provide Saddam Hussein with a ready-made excuse to throw out once and for all the U.N. arms inspectors, who remain the principal check on Iraq's ability to develop nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.

Such arguments may overstate the case. Notwithstanding their deep reservations about the Clinton administration's Iraq policy, friendly Arab countries have fallen grudgingly into line behind Washington, warning Baghdad that it will be responsible for any harm that befalls the country as a result of its defiance of the U.N. in-spec-tions.

As in the past, moreover, the credible threat of U.S. military force may yet force Saddam Hussein to back down and open "presidential sites" - suspect facilities that Iraq contends are symbols of national sovereignty - to full and unfettered access by the U.N. weapons inspection team, known by its acronym, UNSCOM.

Some Western diplomats already detect the beginnings of a stepping-back in the recent offer by Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz to offer limited access to eight of those sites under a plan brokered by Moscow.

"One can say that a resolution of the UNSCOM crisis is a major defeat for Saddam," a Western diplomat said.

But if Saddam Hussein has shown a propensity for catastrophic miscalculations, such as ordering his troops into Kuwait in 1990, he has proved adept since then at provoking crises that ultimately can work to his advantage.

"If you look at his 30-year history, what is certain is he's not suicidal and he doesn't want to lose power," said Laith Kubba, a founder of the opposition Iraqi National Congress. "He tests the waters and, if need be, climbs down."