Iraq's new offer to withdraw is just same old story; see editorial on A6.

- Saddam Hussein played to the Arab gallery Friday with his offer to withdraw from Kuwait 198 days after his tanks crushed the tiny emirate.The pitch of the statement issued by Baghdad's ruling Revolutionary Command Council, which President Saddam heads, was clearly aimed at whipping up Arab support rather than mollifying the United States and the West.

President Bush's swift dismissal of the Iraqi offer as "a cruel hoax" was not unexpected. That may have been the Iraqi intention.

Bush, and the United Nations leadership, have repeatedly stressed they will settle for nothing less than an unconditional Iraqi withdrawal.

The Iraqi statement appeared to rule that out.

By stressing Western "aggression" and exploitation of the Arabs, Saddam appeared to be yet again trying to split the Arab component away from the U.S.-dominated coalition.

He wants to strip it of the legitimacy in the Muslim world it needs to justify the presence of Western troops in Saudi Arabia, site of Islam's holiest shrines.

It's unlikely that the Iraqi strings-attached offer will buy Saddam the time he may feel he needs to tough out the ferocious allied bombing campaign and stave off a ground offensive.

The conditions the Iraqis listed appeared aimed at solidifying Saddam's swelling support among the Arab masses, if not their governments.

The allies' know a ground offensive must be launched soon, while the coalition is still reasonably together, if it's to be unleashed at all.

The desert sandstorms are due to start blowing soon. The Muslim fasting month of Ramadan begins in March, heightening Islamic sensitivities.

Perception is all in the Arab world, where the belief long has persisted that the root of all its problems was the colonial legacy and U.S. support for Israel.

Saddam's strategy, months before he invaded Kuwait on Aug. 2, has been to argue that the West and Israel have been ganging up on him because his military power was challenging the Jewish state.

It may be that Friday's statement shows Saddam's desperation after a month of the most intense air offensive in history and the prospect of a sustained, all-out ground offensive to drive him out of Kuwait.

Editor's note: Ed Blanche, Middle East News Editor for The Associated Press, has covered the region since 1985 and most of its wars since 1967.