EVERY two months the United Nations Security Council reviews the question of economic sanctions against Iraq. Some council members, notably France and Russia, have begun to argue that Saddam Hussein's government has sufficiently complied with UN demands to dismantle its arms industry to justify a lifting of sanctions. Others, most vocally the United States, refute that.
This debate could get particularly hot when the May review comes around, since in April the UN officials assessing Iraq's arms compliance are likely to report that their monitoring system is fully up and running.
The US, however, sees the scope of the sanctions extending beyond the arms issue to such matters as accounting for the hundreds of Kuwaitis taken prisoner by Iraq.
Washington also holds that Iraq is far from inactive on the arms front too. More to the point, Saddam has yet to come forward with credible information on key items as biological weapons development and the identity of various front companies he used to amass his high-tech armaments. Those items, alone, are probably enough to keep the sanctions in place.
The other side of the sanctions picture, of course, is humanitarian. Recent reports indicate Saddam's security and military machinery may be the only things still functioning in Iraq. The sanctions may not have toppled the leader's power structure, but they have imposed poverty and malnutrition on nearly everyone else.
Much of this deprivation is by Baghdad's own design. A UN plan to allow the sale of some oil to finance humanitarian relief in Iraq has been scorned by Saddam as an infringement on sovereignty. And invoking hardship is a handy lever for trying to lift the sanctions.
The suffering accompanying the sanctions is regrettable, and ways of alleviating it should be explored. Softening the conditions for selling oil to underwrite food purchases is one option - though Saddam may not be interested.
The US and its allies on the Security Council are right to keep the pressure on. If the restrictions were lifted today, there's little to indicate Saddam wouldn't use renewed oil revenues to travel the same old road of militarism.
Close monitoring of Iraqi weapons production is one safeguard against that. But some sign of political change within Iraq - and the rumors of dissatisfaction with Saddam are many - would be even more assuring.