In what appears to be a desperate bid to salvage as much of his rapidly disintegrating Iraqi army as possible, Saddam Hussein has ordered a withdrawal from Kuwait. But the announcement - although it does not seem to have any conditions attached - may be too little, too late. Iraq cannot simply walk away from the consequences of its previous actions.
The withdrawal order caused broad diplomatic and military confusion, but the fact that no immediate cease-fire was accepted by the United States and its coalition allies - despite urging from the Soviet Union - shows that the price Saddam may have to pay for his invasion of Kuwait may be the loss of much of his military forces.Those forces already are partially surrounded and if Iraqi troops want to withdraw they will have to leave their tanks and artillery behind. Military commanders say there are signs of a withdrawal, but allied forces are treating such movements as a "retreat" and are still bringing them under fire if any heavy equipment is involved.
The demand that Iraqi forces leave their armor and artillery behind goes beyond the United Nations' resolution calling for Iraq to get out of Kuwait and return to positions before the Aug. 2 invasion. But the Bush administration clearly has hardened its war aims, seeking not only to drive Iraq out of Kuwait but also to break Saddam's military machine and undermine his rule.
While those goals may remain unexpressed in a formal sense, they became part of the allied campaign once the ground war began. Saddam had used up his chances to get out with his forces intact.
As the Kuwait ambassador to the United States said, on hearing Saddam's announcement: Too many people have died for Saddam to try to extricate his armies now that he is defeated.
In any case, an Iraqi withdrawal to pre-Aug. 2 positions is complicated by the fact that some of the positions are now in the hands of allied forces that knifed far into the rear of Iraq's invading armies.
It may be wise for the United States and its allies to hold onto these vital chunks of Iraq territory as leverage to make sure Saddam complies with other U.N. resolutions involving POW exchanges and reparations for damage to Kuwait.
The desperate plight of the Iraqi dictator is demonstrated by the fact that he has bowed to almost all allied demands. He has, as President Bush demanded, "publicly and personally" announced the pullout, without conditions. He has declared that Kuwait is no longer part of Iraq, despite earlier vows to fight to the death to keep the territory. He has ordered an immediate withdrawal instead of one lasting several weeks.
Saddam has not yet publicly stated that Iraq will comply with all other U.N. resolutions, including those dealing with reparations. That appears to be the only obstacle left to hinder a cease-fire.
But the allies obviously are in no hurry. They are going to hold Saddam's feet to the fire down to every last detail. They are going to humiliate him, if possible. They are not going to leave him any room to claim victory or even salvage his armies, if they can prevent it.
Without question, all this has been made possible by the overwhelming military success against Saddam's once-vaunted military machine. In the face of the masterful allied offensive, Iraq's armies shredded like wet tissue paper.
The so-called Butcher of Baghdad apparently is going to survive the war, at least for the time being. But his fearsome reputation is in ruins.
In many respects, the peace that follows is going to be far more difficult to put together than the military victory. The task will be much easier if a nearly-prostrate Saddam is kept in a weakened condition.