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Commentary: The curse of interesting times

By RICHARD TOMKINS, UPI White House Correspondent

WASHINGTON, Dec. 30 (UPI) -- The United States enters the third year of the Bush presidency with three major foreign policy flashpoints that will keep the White House, the country, and indeed the world on the edge of their seats.

It's as if the curse "may you live in interesting times" was hurled in Washington's direction.

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In the Middle East, war against Iraq and its recidivist leader Saddam Hussein, appears inevitable barring a coup, assassination or sudden -- and highly unlikely -- change of heart that sees him cooperating honestly and fully with international weapons inspectors and disarming Iraq of suspected chemical and biological weapons.

Iraq, President George W. Bush has said, poses a grave threat to U.S. and world security given its proclivity for violence against its neighbors, Saddam's regional ambitions and potential as a conduit for weapons of mass destruction to terrorist groups.

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What's more, a nuclear Iraq -- it has been pursuing nuclear weapons since the 1980s -- would alter unpredictably the Middle East military balance of power, in which only pro-West Israel is believed to possess the bomb.

The White House says no decision has yet been reached on war with Iraq, where U.N. weapons inspectors have recently returned. But the United States, which considers Iraq in material breach of international mandates, has some 50,000 troops in the region and is surging more to the area, enough to double the amount in a matter of weeks.

Two aircraft carrier battle groups (about 12 ships each) have been ordered to the Gulf as well as two amphibious assault groups.

"If I was Saddam Hussein and saw these forces were coming after me, it (the option of fleeing the country) would certainly be an option on my table," U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said Sunday on television.

Iraq, which prior to the 1991 Gulf War, had the fifth-largest army in the world, today has armed forces numbering about 350,000-389,000, including reactivated reservists. According to the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, about half of the Iraqi divisions -- 8,000 men per instead of the authorized 10,000 -- are in a fair state of readiness. Other units are badly undermanned and lacking in spare parts for essential equipment.

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Yet an Iraq invasion would not necessarily be a cakewalk, especially if Republican Guard troops withdrew to the cities and engaged in street fighting.

And then there is what happens after an invasion, if it should take place. The challenge of aid, reconstruction, holding the country together and promoting replacement leaders would open a new Pandora's Box.

In Asia, hermetic and xenophobic North Korea -- which the CIA estimates already posses one or two nuclear devices and the means to deliver them regionally -- flouts international agreements and threatens to more fully restart its nuclear program in a game of brinksmanship to parlay bluster into pots of international aid.

The country is starving. But President Kim Jong il's million-man standing army is well fed, well armed and massed along the border with South Korea. War, by miscalculation or design, would result in a massive bloodbath -- even without a nuclear exchange -- unseen on the peninsula since the early 1950s, when Kim's father, Kim il Sung, invaded the South, nearly occupying the entire country before being beaten back to the 38th parallel by South Korean, U.S. and U.N. troops.

"What he wants is for us to believe we're in a state of panic and therefore we have to give him whatever he is demanding and appease bad behavior," Powell said.

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"That's what we are not going to do."

North Korea is an abject lesion in shrinking options, which Bush has warned about. If Iraq already had a nuclear weapon, U.S. options for confronting the regime would be more restricted and fraught, therefore increasing Iraq's influence in the immediate sense and in the long term. That's what the United States, with Britain, is trying to prevent.

North Korea, despite its bluster and outright belligerence, is not a crisis, Washington now coos, just a serious problem that can be solved diplomatically with help from our regional allies, Japan and South Korea, which are within striking distance of Pyongyang's Tae-Po Dong missiles.

In 1994, President Bill Clinton, with help from former President Jimmy Carter, hammered out a deal with North Korea on its pursuit of nuclear weapons. In return for hundreds of thousands of tons of fuel oil annually and help in building two modern nuclear reactors, Pyongyang would shutter its Yongbyon facility, where it produced plutonium for its bombs.

In October, when confronted with evidence by a senior U.S. diplomat, North Korea not only admitted violating the accord, but also defiantly admitted it began work on producing enriched uranium within months on the earlier deal. It is now demanding a non-aggression pact and other concessions from the United States.

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International inspectors have been expelled, and Yongbyon is scheduled for reopening.

The United States, Powell said, is going to use diplomatic and economic pressure on North Korea and "we're going to hope that common sense will ultimately prevail."

That will be interesting to see. Pyongyang is not one for subtleties or by doing things by half measure. While it was announcing the expulsion of international nuclear inspectors and Yongbon's reactivation, it was sending military patrols armed with machine guns into the Demilitarized Zone with South Korea, a clear violation of the armistice that ended the Korean War.

Meanwhile, Iran's Islamist regime, the third leg is President Bush's "axis of evil," is creeping into the nuclear spotlight as well.

Tehran, a supporter of terrorist groups, an enemy of Israel and its "Great Satan" protector, is apparently building two nuclear reactors. Russia, America's new East European friend, is constructing one of them, an $800 million facility at Bushehr.

"Iran is using nuclear energy exclusively for peaceful purposes," Russian Atomic Energy Minister Alexander Rumyantsev said recently. "There are no programs to create nuclear weapons or develop sensitive nuclear technologies."

Iranian President Mohammed Khatami has also tried to dampen U.S. unease, but insists the nuclear project will go ahead.

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Tehran, however, has not yet signed an agreement to return spent fuel rods, which can be used in weapons production, back to Russia, reports say. It also barred international nuclear inspectors from visiting the facility earlier this month as previously arranged.

How the three challenges will play out are undeterminable. But Bush has repeatedly said the United States cannot simply sit back and hope for the best, especially with Iraq.

"Interesting times" doesn't stop there. There is still the war on terrorism, there is still Israeli-Palestinian bloodlust. And on the domestic scene, a shaky economy gnaws at confidence in the future.

"Interesting times?" Yup. But it's our times, like it or not.

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