THE tough talk between the United Nations Security Council and Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein over his defiance of UN cease-fire resolutions could yet lead to another showdown.
For the moment, however, the standoff is more a test of each side's commitment and patience. Diplomats term the battle a "waiting game." Saddam hopes the intense UN interest in Iraq will taper. UN Council members, mulling their options, hope he will back down as he has before.
In many ways it is Washington's talk and deeds that are fueling much of the speculation over what the UN might do next.
President Bush, who has reportedly authorized the Central Intelligence Agency to take covert action in support of dissident efforts to overthrow Saddam, last week openly sent CIA director Robert Gates to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Israel to confer with his counterparts as well as top officials. The trip is seen as one more effort to jack up the pressure on Saddam.
"You're watching psychological warfare," a Middle East expert says.
Some US officials also have talked about a possible "demonstration" bombing of a factory that produces weapons of mass destruction if UN inspectors are denied access to it.
Yet veteran UN observers doubt that the US would act on its own or garner the necessary support for UN action.
Edward Luck, president of the United Nations Association of the USA, says talk of any further military action could create fissures within the coalition.
"I don't think you'd get any unanimity on that within the Council as a UN operation," he says.
Ambassador Richard Murphy, a former US assistant secretary of state and currently senior fellow for the Middle East at the Council on Foreign Relations, agrees that any further UN authorization of force would be hard to get.
"The coalition is hanging together nicely because it isn't under pressure to have to do anything," he says. Asked if the Gates visit could threaten Council solidarity, Ambassador Murphy says the action may make some nonaligned members "anxious." He adds jokingly, "They're always suspicious that we [the US] will turn back into real cowboys, like they've come to know and love us."
Last week Saddam canceled a planned meeting in Vienna with UN officials about a $1.6 billion oil sale that would have financed further imports of food and medicine. He also rejected a UN plan to monitor arms industry and research programs stemming from the UN obligation to see that Iraq neither produces nor imports weapons of mass destruction.
Clearly not pleased, the Security Council voted to extend economic sanctions against Iraq and "strongly deplored" Baghdad's cutoff of the oil talks.
Though food and medicine are exempt from the sanctions, Saddam's quarantine of the Kurdish population in the north remains worrisome to many UN diplomats.
Jean-Bernard Merimee, France's ambassador to the UN, says getting enough food and medicine to the Kurds is a key Council concern. He says no other options are under discussion. However, if Saddam's effort to test the Council is confirmed as a genuine "change in direction," he says, the Council may need to weigh the possibility of further action.
Rolf Ekeus, the Swedish military expert who heads the UN special commission charged with destroying Iraq's most dangerous weapons, says Iraq's cooperation has been minimal.
"The Iraqis try to give us what they believe we will find," he says. ve told them, 'We will find everything.
Mr. Ekeus also has no sympathy for Iraq's regular protests against surveillance flights made by the UN's U-2 reconnaissance plane since the search action is authorized by the Council and advance notice is always given.
I've told the Iraqis many times over that if they would just give us the information we need, we'd terminate these missions," Ekeus says. "They're just binding themselves."
So far there is no evidence of any crack in the UN coalition against Iraq. Yet UN sources say any further provocations from Saddam could prod the Council to consider stronger action. As one diplomat says: "It's hard to be a friend of anyone so belligerent."