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Emboldened by support, Hussein pushes on

Taunting potential allies or going toe to toe with the world's most powerful air force would seem risky strategies _ unless the challenger has little to lose.

Saddam Hussein, emboldened by displays of popular support in the Arab world and encouraged by U.N. Security Council divisions, is ratcheting up pressure regularly in his confrontation with the United States.

His orders for Iraqi troops to fire on U.S. and British planes over southern and northern Iraq led twice to military confrontations last week. On Saturday, diplomats said Baghdad had stopped issuing or extending visas to American and British citizens working with U.N. aid agencies in Iraq.

Saddam's challenges haven't been limited to the United Nations, the United States and Britain. The Iraqi leader also is deriding potential allies in the Arab world.

Saddam's economy is shattered and there is scant hope for any quick easing of U.N. sanctions, which have reduced Iraq's once vibrant middle class to poverty.

"The Iraqi rulers have no incentive to cooperate," Daniel Smith of the Washington-based Center for Defense Information wrote in an article for group this week. "They see no visible point at which the sanctions cease."

Four days of punitive U.S.-British airstrikes in December seem to have done little to cow Iraq. A quick drive around Baghdad reveals that some government buildings have been destroyed or were badly scorched, but the pounding does not appear to have shaken the leadership.

Gun-toting militiamen of the ruling Baath Party, sent to patrol the streets after the attacks began, seem more concerned with keeping warm by huddling around street-corner fires than with the possibility of unrest.

Diplomats in Baghdad, speaking on condition of anonymity, say the Iraqi leadership seems to have been encouraged by the airstrikes and is reaping political benefits from the raids.

Just before the strikes began, U.N. weapons inspectors, who monitored Iraq's past programs to build chemical and biological weapons and long-range missiles, withdrew from the country. Getting rid of the inspectors has been an Iraqi goal for years.

Baghdad is looking for major concessions, such as a change in the composition or mandate of the inspection teams, before monitors are allowed back in Iraq, according to the diplomats.

The sanctions, imposed after Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait, cannot be lifted before the weapons inspectors certify that Iraq is free of its weapons of mass destruction.

The airstrikes inspired protests in Arab capitals, and Iraq may hope that defying Western-imposed "no-fly" zones over northern and southern regions will engender even more Arab support.

Iraq's state-run media hailed the demonstrations, apparently trying to stoke Arab frustration toward America and pressure Arab countries to take a stronger stand against sanctions.

Popular support, however, has not translated into political action, so Baghdad has started pressuring potential Arab allies. Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz warned this week that failure to support Iraq will lead to "further wrath from the Arab masses."

Iraqi frustration and anger has focused most on Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who has said Saddam's regime was responsible for the plight of its people. The Babil newspaper, published by Saddam's son, Odai, has kept up the attack against the leader of the most-populous Arab country.

Saturday's edition featured a particularly insulting cartoon: Mubarak dancing in a skimpy belly-dancing outfit as Saudi King Fahd plays along and President Clinton claps while dressed in cowboy attire with a tie emblazoned with Stars of David.

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