Could Saddam Topple The United Nations?

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Saddam Hussein is again rattling his cage. Given the nature of the man and his regime, this could become a threat not only to Persian Gulf peace and access to the world's largest oil pools but also to the future of the United Nations.

This time, Saddam is not invading Kuwait, which made it easy to unite against him in 1990, but is playing the aggrieved. He demands the lifting of severe economic sanctions and strict arms controls, part of the cease-fire agreement of 1991. His officials have blocked UN investigation of chemical and biological warfare programs, and he threatens to shoot down American U-2s flying reconnaissance for the UN.

Faced with this flagrant violation of the cease-fire, member states have the right to take counter measures, including military action. But Saddam aims to preclude any such reprisal. To split the UN Security Council, he argues that the US dominates and misuses UNSCOM, the UN special commission charged with eliminating Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, in order to spy upon and victimize his country. (More to the point, Richard Butler, the bluff Australian disarmament expert who heads UNSCOM, has shown himself to be as tough as his wily Swedish predecessor, Rolf Ekeus, in ferreting out Saddam's secrets.)

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It is hard to know how much of Iraq's propaganda Council members believe, but for some time a number have urged an easing of economic sanctions and have disapproved of Washington's demand for limited additional measures to force Saddam's compliance. Iraq is said to owe France and Russia some $8 billion each for weapons, supplies, and services delivered before the Gulf War. Their oil companies have signed lucrative contracts with Iraq to take effect - and pay off - when sanctions are lifted.

Sympathy for Saddam

Saddam has aroused sympathy for the undeniable suffering of Iraq's people after nearly seven years of economic pressure - probably most strongly in Arab opinion, with his portrayal of the US as the ally of Israel trying to starve an Arab country into submission. The Arab League, forgetting what Saddam did to Kuwait, wants to rule out military measures and would even rather not apply new restrictions on travel already agreed upon. Overlooked is the fact that Saddam could end sanctions at once by cooperating with UNSCOM.

Saddam's record reveals a megalomaniac and killer who sees Iraq as the hegemonic power of the Arabian peninsula. When he invaded Iran in 1980, he named the operation Qadisiya II, after the Arab victory in AD 637 that drove the Persians out of Mesopotamia. Soon in over his head, he staved off defeat with poison gas against Iran's superior numbers. When Iraqi missiles reached Tehran, the prospect of nerve gas warheads led Ayatollah Khomeini to make peace.

Saddam then turned against internal opponents, gassing some 5,000 Kurds in the town of Halabja. More recently, he tried to eradicate the Shiite marsh Arabs in the south. For Saddam, weapons of mass destruction are the key to survival and future success; genocide is incidental. In torching the Kuwaiti oil fields, he added ecocide to the roster of crimes against humanity.

Apparently invulnerable inside concentric circles of security, Saddam runs a police state which, according to a recent UN human rights report, relies on torture and killing.

Council's response

The Security Council is pondering its response. The "very strong" action demanded by President Clinton to compel resumption of proper weapons inspection is nowhere in sight. The Council's common denominator is low: condemnation of Iraq's action, foreign travel curtailment for those responsible, resumption of UNSCOM inspections, and the usual, amorphous warning of "further measures" in case of noncompliance. The US is still speaking softly but has a big stick. In January 1991, Congress gave the president the power to order military force against Iraq. That law is still on the books.

Should Saddam defy a new resolution and, especially, should he attack or harm American arms inspectors or pilots, the US will likely act on its own. The implications for the UN are grave. Members of Congress and elements in American public opinion might well cause US withdrawal, recalling the UN's impotence when the Bosnian city of Srebrenica, declared a UN safe haven, was overrun by Serbs.

Those with longer memories may harken back to the 1930s when the League of Nations started on the road to oblivion via Japan's invasion of Manchuria, Mussolini's of Ethiopia, and the Spanish Civil War.

* Richard C. Hottelet, a longtime foreign correspondent for CBS, writes on world affairs.

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