UNITED NATIONS, N.Y. — IRAQ'S response to a Western ultimatum could set the stage for a new showdown, this time over missile batteries in the "no fly" zone over southern Iraq.
In a rejection of a 48-hour ultimatum from the United States, France, Britain, and Russia, Iraq yesterday refused to remove several surface-to-air missile batteries placed a few days ago inside the Western-imposed no-fly zone. Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz said: "It is the right of Iraq to deploy air defenses throughout the country," according to the Iraqi news agency.
The ultimatum was delivered Wednesday to Iraqi Ambassador to the UN Nizar Hamdoon.
[At press time there were reports that Iraq was moving some of the missiles. "We're not sure what that means yet," an unnamed Pentagon official said.]
Iraq's initial defiant reaction was not unexpected and will require a strong response from the West if the ultimatum is to have any credibility, says Hermann Eilts, director of Boston University's Center for International Relations.
"If [Iraqi President] Saddam Hussein were meekly to submit without a protest," says Ambassador Eilts, a former US envoy to Egypt, "it would be out of character and hurt him domestically. It seems to me that he's playing to the broader Arab public."
Iraq's missile deployment capped several days of unusual aircraft activity in the zone created last August by the US, France, and Britain. Though the establishment of the zone was not a UN action, Western powers said the authority for it stemmed from a 1991 Security Council resolution aimed at protecting Iraqi minorities from state persecution.
Over the last few weeks a number of Iraqi planes have flown inside the zone and skirted its borders. One Iraqi plane directly confronted US patrolling aircraft and was shot down on Dec. 27. Iraq vowed to take appropriate action at a later date, and when Iraq stationed new missile batteries in the zone, US suspicions grew that retaliation might be part of the plan. US officials said the missiles threatened their patrol and enforcement efforts.
Intense negotations with the European powers brought swift agreement that Saddam's actions had to be challenged.
"He's the one who provoked this particular encounter ... I think we had no choice but to tell him to cut it out," says Robert Hunter, a Middle East expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"This is all part of the continuing war of wills to try to show the people in the region and potential enemies of Saddam Hussein that, yes, we haven't forgotten about him and we're still trying to get rid of him," suggests Professor Hunter. "He's been struggling for two years to paint himself as David to our Goliath. If he can say, 'See, they continue to pick on me,' that helps him at home."
Iraqi Ambassador Hamdoon argues that the no-fly zone over southern Iraq has nothing to do with any UN resolution or with international law. "It is merely the decision of the Western powers," he says. Hamdoon insists Baghdad's recent military moves are strictly defensive, not aimed at creating any crisis.
Presumably the US did not seek the Council's endorsement for the no-fly zone last August because the votes were not there. UN diplomats took part in preparing this week's ultimatum, but again the Council was not involved.
"It [Council approval] would strengthen the US hand legally and therefore politically in those circles that care about the law, but it would probably be very difficult to get another resolution through the Security Council," says Alfred Rubin, an expert on international law with Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.
He recalls that China, the fifth permanent member of the Council, often abstained on resolutions after the Gulf war and won most-favored-nation trade status by the US after one key vote.
"Legally, the absence of the Chinese [from the current ultimatum to Iraq] is striking - it indicates why there wasn't a return to the Council to clarify the law," says Rubin. "But to have the Russians on board is both politically and militarily very important.... The missiles the Iraqis have are Russian devices and in armed conflict replacement parts are absolutely vital."