Saddam's Latest Defiance on Arms: Is US Now in Stronger Position?

Iraqi-US Faceoff

As the Clinton administration considers Iraq's decision to block all further UN arms inspections, it appears to have grounds for making a stronger case for the use of military force against Saddam Hussein than it did in February, when it backed down in favor of UN mediation.

For a start, in responding to Iraq's latest defiance, the UN Security Council on Saturday found it in "flagrant violation" of resolutions requiring it to submit to the inspections or face the consequences. That could bolster US contentions that no new UN vote is needed to authorize a military response.

Iraq moved to end all cooperation with the inspectors - though the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which is tasked with dismantling Iraq's nuclear weapons programs, can keep working. That appears to discredit assertions by its Security Council allies - Russia, China, and France - and by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan that the crisis could be resolved through diplomatic efforts.

Those efforts began in February, when Mr. Annan reached the agreement with Iraq for a resumption of inspections that averted US-led airstrikes. But the talks faltered in August, when Baghdad prohibited UN monitors from conducting unannounced inspections, and appear to have been dealt a mortal blow by its latest decisions.

The US also claims to have new evidence that Iraq lied about weaponizing VX, a highly lethal chemical weapon that it loaded into warheads before its 1991 Gulf War defeat.

Iraq's latest move also appears to have seriously eroded support among its Security Council allies as evidenced by Friday's unanimous vote that it "resume immediate, complete, and unconditional cooperation."

Finally, the US success in brokering the new interim accord between the Palestinians and Israel for a new Israeli troop withdrawal from the West Bank could encourage support from moderate Arab states for a more aggressive policy toward Saddam.

Yet all this does not mean the US can automatically count on winning this time the broad backing for military action against Iraq that it lacked in February, when only Britain and a few other countries contributed to the massive armada of ships and aircraft President Clinton dispatched to the Gulf.

France and Russia are still seeking an end to the economic sanctions on Iraq that are preventing it from repaying to them billions of dollars in debts. And anger remains high in the Arab world over the hunger and destitution the sanctions have inflicted on millions of ordinary Iraqis.

SADDAM'S move is widely seen as a direct challenge to Washington, which in February boosted its presence in the Persian Gulf region to more than 40,000 troops, nearly 400 aircraft and an armada of ships.

That crisis was averted by an 11th-hour intervention by Annan. But in the aftermath, Washington pushed hard in the divided Security Council to ensure that any Iraqi future violation at all would result in the "severest consequences."

Since then, Iraqi officials have believed that a lifting of the oil embargo and sanctions - a "great patriotic, national and humanitarian mission," the leadership says - would occur within months.

Instead, American Army laboratories found the VX traces on warhead fragments. Calling the tests tainted, Iraq demanded a more "neutral" opinion. A few other fragments tested in France found traces of chemicals related to VX; Swiss tests found nothing.

The first move in the latest round came Aug. 5, when Iraq decided to bar UN teams from making field inspections. The Council called the maneuver "totally unacceptable," and cancelled regular reviews, indefinitely extending the embargo.

Mired in the Monica Lewinsky scandal, however, the White House kept a low profile.

The top American arms inspector, Scott Ritter, also quit his post, accusing Washington of actively preventing the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) from carrying out sensitive inspections to prevent another crisis.

The UN's humanitarian coordinator for Iraq, Denis Halliday, also recently resigned over policy disputes, saying the sanctions were "totally bankrupt." Iraq's friends at the UN have also raised their voices against the sanctions.

As he has for years, Saddam may have seen in the confusion an opportunity.

Though on Friday the Council made clear its intention of proceeding early with a "comprehensive review" of Iraq's compliance, the apparent distaste in Washington for a confrontation may have emboldened Baghdad.

This time, the Iraqi move was serious enough to persuade Secretary of Defense William Cohen to cancel a trip to Asia and head home.

Baghdad brushed off any prospect of military consequences yesterday, and said it wouldn't back down.

"Iraq does not fear the threat of the United States because it has been threatening Iraq for the past eight years," said Vice President Taha Hussein Ramadan.

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