An Airstrike Is Avoided, But Iraq Conflicts Loom Over Future UN Inspections

IRAQ'S long-delayed decision to allow United Nations inspection of its Agriculture Ministry for weapons data exempts Iraq from any immediate military strike.

Yet Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has made it clear that he welcomes confrontation, as shown by past down-to-the-wire struggles over the release of documents and the destruction of weapons facilities.

Saddam's broad defiance of the UN cease-fire terms accepted by Iraq in April 1991 has escalated in recent weeks. Iraq refuses to accept the Kuwaiti boundary suggested by a UN border commission, UN terms for selling $1.6 billion of Iraqi oil to finance imports of food and other supplies, and the renewal of a UN humanitarian-aid agreement.

In view of that record and in the aftermath of one of the tensest standoffs between Iraq and the UN since the close of the Gulf war, the UN Security Council is likely to monitor Iraqi compliance with UN terms much more closely. As President Bush has stressed, the "real test" for Saddam lies in future UN inspections. "Behavior along the lines we've just witnessed will not be tolerated," he said.

Rolf Ekeus, the Swedish head of the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) to oversee the elimination of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, flew to Baghdad via London only hours after finally reaching an agreement on Sunday with Iraq's ambassador to the UN, Abdul Amir al-Anbari.

Mr. Ekeus conceded that all the talk of military threats probably helped to convey a message of seriousness to Iraqi officials that they otherwise might not have received. He said all along that he and Iraqi officials were discussing "modalities," but that no compromise was possible since UN Security Council resolutions are binding.

In the end, however, it appeared that in exchange for Iraq's backing down - or "caving in," as Bush described it - Iraqi officials, who had argued they were only trying to maintain Baghdad's sovereignty, won a concession on the composition of the team. No Americans or other members of the allied coalition, whom Iraq says it suspects of being spies, would actively inspect the agriculture building. The team that enters the Agriculture Ministry today will be largely European and headed by a German.

Ekeus, who is accompanying the UN team, readily admits that some of what UN inspectors hoped to find may have been removed from the ministry. Increasing harassment forced UN inspectors last week to give up their round-the-clock vigil at the building since the standoff began July 5. Yet Ekeus told reporters at the UN before leaving New York, "We are still looking for traces ... [and] there may be some material of significance."

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