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Saddam is still king, making millions and threatening peace

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On the 10th anniversary of the Persian Gulf War, its commanders are being lionized at the Republican convention and the Clinton administration derides Iraqi President Saddam Hussein as "captive emperor of a weak, dispirited country."

But he is still in power, making millions off smuggled oil, and remains the biggest threat to peace in the region while continuing to torture and murder his own people.

Although Defense Department spokesman Ken Bacon says Saddam is "no longer a threat to his neighbors," his neighbors feel so threatened all have signed defense pacts with Washington and spend inordinate amounts of money on sophisticated American arms.

Weapons purchases by the Gulf Cooperation Council Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Bahrain and Qatar exceed $50 billion a year.

Kuwait is the biggest spender, devoting 25 percent of its annual budget to defense on top of $12 billion in military expenditures after its liberation from Iraqi invaders.

Even so, the Gulf states still rely on the United States for their protection. It costs the American taxpayers more than $2 billion a year to enforce "no-fly zones" over Iraq, maintain 25,000 troops in the region and keep the world's most powerful naval armada permanently on-station there.

Although our Navy helps enforce the embargo on Iraq, it can only interdict smugglers in international waters. Tankers carrying Iraqi oil can elude our warships simply by staying within Iran's 12-mile territorial limit.

U.S. officials estimate Saddam earns $25 million to $40 million a month off oil smuggled through Iranian waters or overland through Turkey, a NATO ally that openly flouts the embargo because of its own energy needs. Iran's Revolutionary Guards also net an estimated $20 million a month simply for allowing the tankers safe passage.

Iran-Iraq collusion may seem strange for two countries that fought a terrible war in the 1980s and remain deeply hostile to each other. Iraq even provides sanctuary for exiled opponents of the Iranian regime who stage periodic terrorist attacks against the Islamic government in Tehran.

But oil smuggling is a mutually beneficial enterprise for both. U.S. intelligence reports say an average of seven small oil-laden vessels depart Iraq daily and rendezvous with larger tankers off tiny Qais Island, an Iranian tourist resort not far from the mainland. The tankers then hug the Iranian coastline all the way out of the Persian Gulf.

Sanctions imposed by the United Nations after Iraq invaded Kuwait bar all commercial activity except an "oil-for-food" program designed to meet the humanitarian needs of the Iraqi people. Oil exports under this program are expected to reach $18 billion this year.

Although Iraqi purchases of food and medicine are strictly supervised by the United Nations, the Baghdad regime controls their distribution. This has created a patronage network that rewards those loyal to Saddam at the expense of the rest. So the embargo helps keep him in power.

And the fortune he makes every month off smuggled oil pays for his oppressive security apparatus, keeps the Republican Guard happy and buys new weapons, perhaps, to replace those he lost before he kicked out all U.N. arms inspectors over a year ago.

There is no question that the embargo has caused untold suffering to the Iraqi people. UNICEF estimates that a half million children under five have died as a direct result of sanctions. Anupama Rao Singh, UNICEF's country director for Iraq, said one in four Iraqi children is "chronically malnourished" and the mortality rate has doubled.

The International Committee of the Red Cross agrees that "deteriorating living conditions make people's everyday lives a continuing struggle, while food shortages and lack of medicines and clean drinking water threaten their very survival."

Even if the embargo was lifted tomorrow, says the ICRC, "it would take years for the country to return to the same standards as before the Gulf War because of the utter devastation" caused by sanctions.

Saddam, of course, does not care. He has not been hurt by sanctions and faces very little danger of being overthrown by the Iraqi National Council, a fractious grouping of anti-Saddam exiles funded by Washington. All he has to worry about is his murderous family — what the London Telegraph calls a "Baghdad version of the Borgias."

So who really won the gulf war?

Contact Holger Jensen of the Denver Rocky Mountain News at www.denver-rmn.com.