IF there is one issue on which members of the United Nations Security Council have been firmly united since the end of the cold war, it is the Iraqi crisis. The Council has been adamant that Baghdad must obey all UN cease-fire terms.
Yet the Council membership was not consulted, formally or informally, on the decision announced last week by the United States to bar Iraqi planes from flying over Shiite marshlands and other areas in the southern third of Iraq. The US won the support of Britain and France before the announcement.
"The action is not mandated by the Council and is being looked at as something outside it," says one Council diplomat. "You might call it a victor-vanquished relationship."
Some argue that the departure from the usual UN vote of approval is a small technicality. Brent Scowcroft, the US national security adviser, says UN authority was not sought because at least four permanent members felt the US already had authority to conduct the operation.
Supported by the Russian Federation, diplomats of the US, Britain, and France did consult with UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali and, once the decision was made, informed many nations on a bilateral basis. The Council held an emergency session Aug. 11 on Iraq's worsening humanitarian situation in the south. President Bush contends that the flight ban has its roots in Council Resolution 688 of April 1991, which calls on Iraq to halt repression of civilians and provide access to humanitarian relie f personnel.
Yet some diplomats and legal scholars say the US ban on flights in southern Iraq is a turning point of sorts, a sign that Council support and the Gulf-war coalition may not be quite as strong as they once were. "I believe the three [supporters] went through a bit of an agonizing process in trying to decide how to handle this," says one Asian diplomat. Pushing too far
Some diplomats say the US could take matters too much into its own hands and be perceived as pushing Iraq too far. "At some point you begin to have sympathy for the underdog," explains a Southeast Asian diplomat.
Resolution 688 was passed under Chapter 6 of the UN Charter rather than under Chapter 7. Chapter 7 decisions are mandatory and military action can be taken to enforce them.
"As I read 688, I don't see clear authority for the US or any state to actually take military action against Iraq," says Alfred Rubin, a professor of international law at Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. "I think the US has been interpreting the Security Council resolution in a way that authorizes us to do things that I'd say most, or nearly all other, members of the UN would disagree with."
Though Saudi Arabia is a key base for the current patrol operation, Kuwait is the only Arab nation to endorse publicly the "no fly" zone in Iraq. Egypt and Syria, once partners in the coalition, have voiced concern that the proposal could partition Iraq and destabilize the region.
Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, who has warned Arab nations against providing facilities for coalition forces, calls the no-fly zone illegal. He charges that the action is political and aimed at dividing Iraq to gain control of its oil fields.
Mr. Bush denies that his motives are political or that he wants to dismember Iraq. The action is strictly to protect Iraq's harassed Shiite minority, he says, and to ensure Iraq's compliance with Resolution 688. Yet Bush openly admits that he hopes to shackle the Iraqi government - not an endorsed UN aim - and that he looks forward to new leadership in Baghdad.
Saddam's defiance of what he sees as unfairly punitive cease-fire terms has been blustery and wide-ranging. He vows to defeat the new "allied plot" in southern Iraq and says Baghdad never again will allow UN weapons inspectors to search government ministries. The Security Council insists that the UN, not Iraq, sets the terms.
The US, claiming authority under UN Security Council resolution 687, which was passed under Chapter 7 of the Charter, says military retaliation will follow any Iraqi effort to bar UN inspectors from government ministries. UN interests in Iraq
A Vienna-based nuclear-weapons inspection team began a week-long visit to Iraq yesterday, and two other teams from the UN Special Commission charged with overseeing the elimination of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction are scheduled to visit Baghdad early this month.
Another key interest of the UN is renewal of the memorandum of understanding on visas and other legalities for UN relief workers and guards in Iraq.
Though Iraq agreed to talk the matter over in Baghdad two weeks ago with UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Jan Eliasson, no agreement was reached.
There are now only 120 guards and 75 UN relief workers in the Kurdish areas of northern Iraq, about one-fifth as many UN workers as one year before. Iraq has threatened to expel those remaining in retaliation for the no-fly order.
Iraq also continues to defy the demarcation of boundary lines between Iraq and Kuwait as set by a UN boundary commission. Last month the Security Council voted to guarantee the "inviolability" of those lines by using military force if necessary.