Midstream With Iraq

The weapons-inspection crisis with Iraq appears finished, but the work of coming to final terms with a dictatorial regime whose intentions remain far from peaceful is in midstream.

Credit goes to Russia and its foreign minister, Yevgeny Primakov, for spearheading efforts to resolve the immediate problem. Iraq says it will let all the UN arms inspectors, including Americans, back in. The trade-off for Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, it seems, is Russia's assurance it will work for removal of the sanctions that have boxed in Iraq for almost seven years.

Just what that trade-off means, practically, is unclear. The sanctions should lift just as quickly as Saddam decides to fully cooperate with the UN inspection team and give up his dreams of an arsenal bristling with toxic chemicals and biological agents. The best thing Russia can do for Iraq is persuade its leader to accelerate this cooperation. Any weakening of the link between Iraqi compliance and lifting of sanctions is out.

The inspection team's record to date reveals an Iraq intent on hiding or destroying data about its weapons program. Protection of sovereignty is Saddam's standard excuse, but Iraq sacrificed that argument when it crossed its borders to destroy Kuwait's sovereignty.

Pressures to speed up the weapons inspection task likely will mount, as Russia tries to make good on its promise to ease sanctions. But that task is by nature meticulous. The key, again, is Iraqi cooperation.

The UN Security Council drew together during this emergency. But Saddam's tactic of precipitating a crisis succeeded, nonetheless, in highlighting weaknesses in the Gulf War coalition, pushing the US to the edge of a military response, and heightening Arab sympathies for the longsuffering Iraqi people (whose suffering is directly attributable to their leader's ruthless ambition and poor judgment).

The US military buildup in the Gulf, while it sparked criticism, also forced Saddam's hand. He knew, from experience, it was more than bluster.

The Iraqi leader wants to lay his problems at America's door. The Clinton administration is wise to keep attention focused on UN decisionmaking. This is not a battle of pride between Baghdad and Washington. It's a test of whether, in the final years of the century, a majority of nations can restrain a well-armed delinquent.

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