Tragedy in Iraq

CONSCIENCES are being stung in many capitals of the world as the curtain closes on the rebellion inside Iraq. The Shiites of southern Iraq were ground down last week, and now the Kurds are fleeing by the hundreds of thousands to escape Saddam Hussein's revenge. This scene takes us back where we began last August: witnessing a vicious assault on human rights and dignity by Saddam's loyalist Republican Guards. The suffering of Kurds trapped without food in the mountains, and with little hope of a welcome from either Turkey or Iran, compares with the suffering of Kuwaitis under the invaders from Iraq.

Maybe this situation does go beyond the formal objectives of United Nations involvement in the region. Certainly the United States has reason not to intervene militarily in Iraq. But the plight of the Kurds, Shiites, and others who want freedom from tyranny derives directly from UN action, led by the US.

The world body and Washington have a clear moral responsibility to do what they can to keep Saddam's legions from further mayhem and allay the suffering of refugees.

France's efforts to push the UN Security Council toward a declaration of concern for the Kurds is a right, if belated, step. Along with that should come steps to tie the softening of sanctions to humanitarian treatment of the Kurds and Shiites. Food and medical aid is critical, and the UN has to take the lead in distributing it.

The UN cease-fire agreement should include a ban on the use of any air power - including helicopters - against Iraq's own people.

The US has finally opened talks with Iraqi opposition leaders. These people must have a role in reshaping Iraq along more democratic lines. Talking to them, making clear the US preference for democracy - though it may disturb some allies in the Middle East - is simply being true to American principles.

The US and the UN will lose much of the moral authority they gained in recent months if they fall back into a willingness once again to ``live with'' Saddam's vicious ways.

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