IRAQ is again testing the limits of United Nations resolve.
In a tough statement issued late last week, the UN Security Council warned that serious consequences could follow Baghdad's recent "unacceptable breach" of UN cease-fire terms agreed to after the Gulf war. Iraq was told that it must allow UN weapons inspectors to install monitor cameras at two rocket test sites and move certain chemical weapons equipment to a destruction site.
Iraq says it is not flatly refusing to comply with the UN, but questions the legality of the orders and wants to use the weapons equipment to produce pesticides.
Baghdad tried to argue its case in a lengthy exchange of letters and comments with officials of the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) charged with overseeing the elimination of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. But UN officials charge that Iraq is trying to renegotiate cease-fire terms already accepted. High-level meeting
These issues and others are sure to come up today in Geneva when Iraq's Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz meets with UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali. The meeting, requested by Iraq, is expected to focus primarily on the Council's offer, first made in August 1992, to allow Iraq to sell up to $1.6 billion of oil a year to finance relief needs and UN operations in Iraq. Iraqi officials say conditions of the offer impinge on Iraqi sovereignty.
Mr. Aziz has made clear in previous appearances before the Security Council that Iraq wants dialogue and tangible gains for anything it gives up. Iraqi officials said over the weekend, for instance, that they would consider allowing the UN to monitor Iraqi weapons systems over the long term - one of the tenets of the cease-fire - if the UN were to lift its three-year-old economic sanctions against Iraq.
The Security Council, which periodically reviews the sanctions, decided as recently as May 25 not to modify them. Last week, during a visit to the White House by King Hussein of Jordan, President Clinton urged his visitor to do more to enforce UN sanctions against Iraq.
The current Iraqi challenge to the Security Council is regarded as the most serious since January, when Baghdad tried unsuccessfully to require all future UN operations to use Iraqi, rather than UN, aircraft.
Iraq had hoped the Clinton administration would prove more receptive to its complaints than the Bush administration. But the current administration insists that Baghdad be held accountable to UN standards.
"We insist on full Iraqi compliance with the whole range of cease-fire resolutions," a US official says. "I think the international community's resolve is still very strong."
Tim Trevan, a UNSCOM spokesman, agrees: "I don't really see any softening in the Council. The wedge-driving tactics of Iraq have not worked."
Iraq has picked a moment when the Security Council is unusually busy tending to crises in Somalia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and elsewhere. Analysts suspect that Iraq hoped its lack of compliance might seem trivial by comparison. `Dual containment'
Washington's disclosure of the new so-called "dual containment" policy with respect to Iraq and Iran may also be a factor in the timing. The US views both governments as essentially hostile to the US for the foreseeable future. Instead of playing one nation against the other as previous administrations have, the Clinton White House now sees an advantage in keeping both nations economically and militarily weak.
"I think the Iraqis see that `dual containment' gives them no chance to get off the hook," says Hooshang Amirahmadi, a Middle East expert at Rutgers University. Iraq may want to challenge the policy "before it's too late," he says, and may view defiance of UN weapons inspectors as one way to do so.
In a June 9 letter to the UN Secretary-General, Iraqi Ambassador to the UN Nizar Hamdoon insisted that more than 1,000 inspections have been conducted in his country on everything from bread ovens and sewers to prisons and universities. Most were conducted without warning, he wrote. `Cat and mouse'
Yet UNSCOM officials say that Iraq's lack of cooperate has slowed the UN inspection process. Iraq still has not provided full information on weapons suppliers, and UN officials doubt that Iraq's stated inventory of chemical weapons and SCUD missiles is complete. "They always play a game of cat and mouse with us," Mr. Trevan, the UNSCOM spokesman, says.
He notes that about eight UN vehicles were damaged at two sites earlier this month. On two instances in one night UN, inspectors entering a restaurant were pelted with light bulbs. "Whenever we have a problem with Iraqi officialdom, suddenly harassment starts," Trevan says. "You're dealing with a highly organized police state where, generally speaking, nobody does anything unless they know it's officially sanctioned by the regime."
Baghdad would like to send a technical team to New York July 12 to speak with UN weapons inspectors. But UNSCOM's Rolf Ekeus has said that serious discussion is not possible while Iraq is challenging the Council. Three UN inspection teams are in Iraq this week.
Nikita Smidovich, a Russian inspector leading a team of ballistic experts, has said he plans to stay in Iraq until Baghdad allows the cameras to be put in place.