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Once again, we are paying the price for our failure of resolve in the Gulf War, a failure that has left a defeated third-rate thug with the power to yank our chain whenever he feels like it, costing us millions of dollars and demonstrating both America's and the U.N.'s helplessness.

Saddam Hussein's decision to again frustrate the efforts of the U.N. weapons inspection teams has annoyed even those most sympathetic to his stated goal of ending sanctions against Iraq -- China, France and Russia.

Beyond the joy of baiting the United States, Hussein apparently has a very practical motive this time. The U.N. inspection teams have recently been coming up with more and more evidence that Iraq has lied about how much nerve gas it has manufactured, and how many shells carrying anthrax and botulism it prepared. The fear, of course, is that some of those shells are still lying around a secret warehouse somewhere, ready to be fired in Hussein's next adventure.

It was peculiar that the person left looking most foolish by the Iraqi dictator was the only one to have anything vaguely warm to say about him. U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan had reaped praise for managing a last-minute deal the last time Hussein defied the U.N.'s inspection teams to avert American military action.

The Clinton administration has so far not threatened any military retaliation against Hussein. U.S. officials are unwilling to call the situation a "crisis," because they don't want to give Hussein too much importance. But they say the shutdown of the inspection teams is completely unacceptable. That means that short of a rapid reversal and a resumption of Iraqi cooperation with the inspectors, the president will have little choice but to order U.S. naval forces back into the Gulf to once again threaten bombing attacks.

If he reacts as he has in the past, Hussein will push the confrontation down to the last minute, then count on the Russians, French and Chinese, as well as Annan himself, to come up with some "compromise." Of course, any compromise is likely to leave the Iraqis better off than they were before the face-off.

Unless, of course, President Clinton decides that enough is enough, and besides, a good lambasting of our only real international enemy might take a few people's minds off his sex life. That such a bombing will not solve the problem, and Iraq's ordinary people are certain to suffer much more than Saddam Hussein is, as always, beside the point. What alternatives are there?

The fact is, very few. Unless Clinton is willing to order American troops in on the ground once again -- an impossibility in the present political climate -- there is no way to get rid of Hussein, or to bring him properly to heel. Washington is left with an occasional bombing attack, and the resumption of low-key support for Hussein's enemies.

But there is no credible Iraqi opposition group, inside or outside the country. The only possible bases for anti-Hussein forces are among the Kurds in the north and the Shiites in the south. The Shiites are more or less off-limits, since Washington fears a possible alliance between them and Iran. And the Kurds have been tried before, at great expense and embarrassment, without much success.

But U.S. officials are so desperate they are even willing to forgive Massoud Barzani, the Kurdish leader who betrayed the CIA and its client Kurdish groups less than two years ago, inviting Hussein's army into Kurdish-controlled territory to wipe out American-backed forces. Barzani is once again being approached by the United States as part of its effort to foster opposition to the Iraqi leader.

The main problem with relying on Kurds is that both they and Washington know that the alliance is limited and temporary. All of the divided Kurdish nationalist groups are dedicated to a national home -- Kurdistan. That would take in not only parts of Iran and Iraq, but also a large chunk of Turkey. There is no way any U.S. administration will support any group so hated by one of its main regional allies, and a prominent member of NATO.

The strategists who are sitting around the table at the National Security Council seem to be getting yet another sharp lesson in the limits of power, and the frustrations they bring. Let's hope they are also learning patience, because with Saddam Hussein they're going to need it.

King Features Syndicate

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