Questions Over Iraq

THIS week's air encounters over southern Iraq, including the downing of an Iraqi jet by an American F-16, were reminders of the Gulf war's unfinished business.

One big piece of that business is Iraq's continued noncompliance with United Nations cease-fire terms. The UN wants, among other things, full disclosure of Iraqi weapons programs, the return of all Kuwaitis detained during the war, and a commitment to human rights. Instead it gets partial cooperation with its weapons inspectors, bluster about Iraq's rights to Kuwaiti territory, and bombs rigged to trucks carrying relief supplies into Iraqi Kurdistan.

If Baghdad had complied with the UN demands, the current tensions would not exist. But Saddam Hussein apparently is determined to test the staying power of the international coalition that expelled him from Kuwait nearly two years ago, and of the United States in particular.

The responses of President Bush and of President-elect Clinton to the air incidents were identical: US and international commitment to the cease-fire arrangement, and to the southern "no fly" zone, won't falter.

The no-fly zone was instituted last August when it became apparent that the Saddam was stepping up efforts to drive out pockets of Shiite resistance in the south. The US and its allies decided to keep Iraqi aircraft out of the region both to help the Shiite rebels taking refuge in marshlands and to let Baghdad know that lagging compliance with the cease-fire carried a price.

A similar price is being exacted in northern Iraq, where the Kurds, still under international protection, have declared their independence from Baghdad.

But how long will the international cover for Kurdish and Shiite aspirations last? Saddam's troop movements leave little doubt that he will crack down when circumstances permit.

Hence the other big pieces of unfinished business: Can Iraq unite again? Are the US and its Gulf war allies willing to let Saddam accomplish this his way, if that is what it takes to keep Iraq intact as a regional counterbalance to Iran, which is acquiring its own inventory of modern weapons? Or should the moral commitment to protect the Kurds and other oppressed minorities take precedence? In this case, the restrictions on Iraqi sovereignty would remain until a new political order, more respectful of hu man rights, takes over.

These hard questions will be waiting for the Clinton State Department.

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