THE United Nations Security Council is poised to grant explicit international legitimacy to a possible United States-led strike against Iraqi forces. The UN action may also encourage domestic support in Washington for the Bush policy of creating credible military leverage for freeing occupied Kuwait.
The Bush administration has lobbied countries from Cuba to China for the new UN resolution - expected to win approval tonight in the Security Council - while Congress has grown vocal in its qualms about engaging in battle in the Persian Gulf. (UN `Gang of Four' urges peaceful route, Page 5.)
The Security Council has already passed 10 resolutions seeking Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait. The new one would authorize member states, cooperating with the government of Kuwait, ``to use all necessary means'' to enforce the earlier resolutions - if Iraq has not complied by a set date in January. Although the United States was pushing for an earlier date, by Tuesday evening the Americans had unofficially agreed to the Soviet proposed date of Jan. 15.
The resolution, combined with the sharp buildup of anti-Saddam forces in the Gulf, is intended to ratchet up the pressure on Saddam Hussein to withdraw from Kuwait. Iraqi said Wednesday that it will defy the resolution.
Although It may bring war nearer, the resolution also may prod other actions. ``In some ways, the resolution could make war less likely,'' says Shireen Hunter of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, since it would show Saddam he has made no progress in dividing the alliance against him.
Saddam has given a number of cues that he takes the Western position and the prospects for war increasingly seriously, notes Marvin Feuerwerger, senior strategic fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Studies. The cues range from sending his foreign minister to the Soviet Union this week to announcing severe penalties for hoarding goods, and calling up more reserve troops.
Whether the Bush administration would like to reach beyond the present resolution in order to remove Saddam from power and destroy his warmaking technology is not clear.
Administration statements have never ``crossed that line in terms of going after him personally,'' says Mr. Feuerwerger. Yet they have often seemed to imply such goals through comparing Saddam to Adolf Hitler, and warning of his potential possession of nuclear devices.
The American allies against Iraq may not mind a strategy that targets Saddam, although they may not want to participate directly or even publicly endorse it. ``Everybody wants the US to do its dirty job for them,'' says Dr. Hunter. ``The only one that has actually committed men, really, is Britain.''
Soviet stance stiffens
The Soviet Union is ready to endorse the UN resolution backing the use of force to solve the Gulf crisis. The Soviet stance has toughened in recent weeks in response to Iraqi treatment of Soviet citizens held in Iraq. Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev also wants to keep in step with the West, whose economic and political backing could be crucial his nation's survival.
The harsher Soviet posture was clear at a meeting Monday between Mr. Gorbachev and Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz, which Gorbachev's spokesman described as ``tough.'' The Soviet leader warned of harsh steps if Iraq did not immediately respond to demands for its withdrawal from Kuwait.
A principle source of Soviet discontent is the approximately 3,000 Soviet specialists still being detained in Iraq. Saddam gave assurances last month that the then 5,000 Soviets in Iraq at the time, mostly civilian workers, would be allowed to leave as soon as possible.
Soviet Foreign Ministry spokesman Vitaly Churkin said Iraq had violated an agreement on the departure of 1,000 Soviets this month. So far, only 350 had returned home, he said.
Although Mr. Churkin also indicated that the Soviets may be willing to back the resolution, they are unwilling to contribute armed forces to any expeditionary force against Iraq.
French position made clear
After ducking and hesitating on the issue of UN authorization for armed intervention against Iraq over the past few weeks, France made it clear Tuesday that it will vote for such authorization.
The government added that it is prepared to join a military intervention against Iraq, if that country continues to resist international pressure to leave Kuwait.
Foreign Minister Roland Dumas said Tuesday that ``it is a good thing to fix a precise period of time for an Iraqi retreat from Kuwait.'' But unlike the US, which suggested a Jan. 1 deadline, France proposed Jan. 15.
France's hardened stance reflects several factors: a frustration over Saddam's unwillingness to compromise, a realization that the Soviets, too, were hardening their tone, and a desire to place responsibility for an eventual war on Iraq's shoulders. The French are also eager to take a seat at the head table of any international conference on Middle East security that might follow a Gulf war.
British pledge `full support'
During Britain's leadership campaign, John Major, the new prime minister, referred repeatedly to the need to maintain the unity of the coalition opposing Iraq. He has also pledged ``full support'' for American attempts at the UN to obtain Security Council backing for the use of force, if necessary, and to impose a deadline on Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait.