Hold the Line in the Gulf

The world's attention is fixed on the Kosovo conflict, but that other battle between Western allies and a dictatorial national leader still rumbles in the Persian Gulf.

The latest standoff began last December, when Saddam Hussein challenged the no-fly zones over his country. The allies responded by bombing Iraqi installations, which still continues. Saddam also booted out the United Nations arms inspectors whose work formed the heart of a process designed, ultimately, to bring Iraq back into the community of nations.

The key question: Can a credible UN inspection presence be reestablished in Iraq, thus reopening a path toward settling the Gulf conflict?

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Baghdad's official line is no inspections until UN economic sanctions are lifted. That's backward. Sanctions can be lifted just as soon as renewed inspections verify that Saddam's nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons programs are defunct. Even then, Baghdad has a few other requirements to meet, too, such as accounting for hundreds of Kuwaitis abducted during the Gulf War. Meanwhile the UN will continue to allow, and perhaps expand, oil sales to meet the humanitarian needs of Iraq's people.

Despite Iraqi avowals that UN demands have been met, uncertainties about the weapons programs remain. The UN inspection team headed by Australian Richard Butler made that clear before its expulsion. Proposals for a revamped inspection process are before the Security Council, along with related proposals intended to encourage Iraqi cooperation. The latter would free up more oil production.

The logical turn of events, now, would be Iraqi agreement to the new inspections regime in return for loosened restrictions on oil revenues earmarked for humanitarian relief. Yes, a very problematic leader would remain in Baghdad, but his dreams of power and conquest would be clipped and caged. But assumed patterns of logic don't always prevail in dealing with dictators who put their own grasp on power above all else - as NATO has learned with Slobodan Milosevic.

The need is to draw firm lines - such as the verified destruction of Iraqi weaponry, or the secure return of Kosovo refugees. Then diligently stick to them.

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