IRAQ and the leaders of the Gulf war coalition are locked in a continuing round of provocations followed by military responses, each aimed at testing the other's resolve.
Yesterday morning's attack by Western-coalition jets on anti-aircraft sites in Iraq followed close on the heels of Sunday's United States cruise-missile attack on a Baghdad nuclear facility.
The two attacks were a reaction both to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's recent challenges to the Western-imposed no-fly zones over northern and southern Iraq and to his offers of conditional compliance with United Nations cease-fire demands.
The cruise missile attack and the jet attack were, respectively, the second and third Western military attacks on Iraq in six days. The missile strike came hours after US warplanes shot down an Iraqi fighter jet.
The first attack in the series came Jan. 13 when more than 100 US, British, and French jets hit Iraqi missile and radar sites in the south in retaliation for Iraqi actions that included Iraqis crossing into Kuwait and removing weapons from a storage area.
UN Security Council credibility is on the line in two significant respects in the current dispute. One concern is the degree of Baghdad's compliance with cease-fire terms. The second is a charge of double standards.
On the first concern, Iraq's pattern of response has been to yield a little to each bit of coalition pressure, though always with an added condition.
Last week, for example, Iraqi officials said no UN planes could be used to transport UN weapons inspectors in and out of Iraq. When that condition was rejected, Iraq said UN planes could be used but their safety could not be guaranteed. Later Baghdad officials said they would ensure the safety if the UN planes flew in over Jordan, avoiding no-fly zones. When that was rejected and another military attack was pending, Iraq said the safety of UN flights over the no-fly zones could be assured as well if coal ition planes stayed away. The UN says it is in no position to give such guarantees.
"Iraq provokes a military confrontation and then it gives in," says Edward Luck, president of the United Nations Association of the USA. "All this does is tell the West that ... the only thing Iraq pays attention to is the use of military force. If you go back to the negotiations before the Gulf war, military force was the one thing that Saddam Hussein seemed to respect."
Mr. Hussein appears to be engaged in an all-out effort to challenge the no-fly zones and reestablish control over the country.
Sanford Lakoff, a University of California political scientist specializing in the Middle East, says he suspects Hussein may next launch a ground attack to secure northern and southern Iraq where rebellious Kurds and Shiites live.
"The situation is very dangerous," says Professor Lakoff. "I think Hussein has calculated that neither the US and its Western allies nor the Arab states and the other members of the Security Council are going to rush to authorize a land campaign against him." Lakoff says Hussein may be hoping to persuade the Council to soften cease-fire terms.
Iraq's Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz insists Iraq is challenging the no-fly zones but not the UN itself, though Iraq all along has maintained that the Security Council is only a US puppet.
* Iraq, for instance, refuses to cooperate with a long-term UN weapons monitoring program or to share the names of weapons suppliers regarded by the UN as vital to its verification job.
"We've tried every line of logic and persuasion," says Tim Trevan, spokesman for the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) overseeing the elimination of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. "They [the Iraqis] don't accept our rights or immunities."
* Though Iraq has begun dismantling six Iraqi police posts now on Kuwaiti territory, Baghdad never accepted the new UN-drawn border between Iraq and Kuwait. Rashid Khalidi, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Chicago, says the border revamp, which restricts Iraq's access to the Gulf, is one of the greatest mistakes the UN has made and creates a problem "which will come back to haunt us generations after Saddam and the Baath Party are gone." The UN, he says, should have lef t the border alone.
AS to the Iraqis' concern regarding a UN double standard, Pakistan, along with several Arab nations, says the Council must be more consistent in enforcing resolutions.
"We believe there should be a more evenhanded approach," says a Pakistani diplomat. He cites such Council moves as the demand that Israel take back recently expelled Palestinians and the Council's condemnation of rights violations in Kashmir.
President-elect Bill Clinton has said he will judge Hussein by his behavior rather than his words. The Iraqis hope the US will at least stop linking removal of UN economic sanctions to an ouster of Saddam Hussein.