Seventy hours of American and British airstrikes have thrown into disarray the eight-year effort to rid Iraq of its chemical, biological, and nuclear warfare programs.
The raids have intensified a dispute in the United Nations Security Council over the inspection regime, as well as over economic sanctions that have hamstrung Iraq's military even while driving most of its 21 million people into penury.
"The big question for everyone is, what now?" says a UN official on condition of anonymity. "The Council is so split. How could they have a resolution that reflects everyone's views?"
But more than the hunt for Iraq's weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) is at stake. The dispute also represents the latest post-cold-war test of relations between the United Nations Security Council's permanent members - the United States, Russia, China, Britain, and France - and their ability to cooperate on complex challenges in the coming century.
Intense diplomatic talks are under way in an effort to determine the future of one the most ambitious and controversial arms-control initiatives ever.
But given the disparate interests of UN members, some American officials are increasingly dubious that the UN can respond to US views of international security threats, such as Iraqi WMDs. UN-backed coalitions are desirable, they say. But the conflict with Iraq shows that the US may find itself more often acting alone or with a few partners, even at the risk of provoking deeper resentment of American "unilateralism."
"We need two tracks [in foreign policy]," says a senior US official. "One would be multilateral. But we are going to have to have hard unilateral approaches as well."
A two-track strategy appears to be what the US will pursue following of the Dec. 17-20 attacks triggered by Iraq's latest bid to thwart UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) inspections in defiance of the 1991 Gulf War truce accord.
Publicly, the US insists on retaining UNSCOM. It says Baghdad must allow UNSCOM to resume its work to certify the destruction of Iraq's illicit arms programs. Until that certification is made, the US will use its Security Council veto to kill any moves to free Iraq of oil and trade embargoes, US officials say.
"If the Iraqis aren't going to let UNSCOM in, if they aren't going to allow an effective UNSCOM to work, then their desire to have sanctions lifted is an empty desire," says James Foley of the State Department.
US officials also reject calls for reconfiguring UNSCOM. France, for instance, has suggested that UNSCOM no longer pursue intrusive inspections, but continue monitoring the 211 civilian facilities that Iraq can adapt to produce chemical or biological weapons.
"It would be a serious mistake to politicize UNSCOM, to organize UNSCOM along different lines, one that was not either professional, expert, authoritative, or responsible," says Undersecretary of State Thomas Pickering.
But privately, US officials have closed the book on UNSCOM, saying that even if it is allowed to return to Iraq, Saddam Hussein will never permit it to work. "UNSCOM is dead," asserts the senior US official. "We may want to keep pursuing this publicly in order to remain on the moral high ground ... but in my view, a stake has been driven through it."
As the second policy track, the US and Britain intend to monitor Iraq through overflights and intelligence assets, launching new airstrikes should they detect a resumption of Iraqi WMD programs. They also plan to intensify enforcement of the sanctions by cracking down on Iraqi oil smuggling, and say they will work with Saddam's domestic opponents for his overthrow.
They also say they may agree to expand the program under which Iraq sells $5.2 billion worth of oil every six months and uses the proceeds to feed its people. The UN oversees the program to ensure that revenues are not used to re-arm Iraq's Gulf War-shattered army.
Many experts, however, harbor misgivings about the US approach. Without UNSCOM on the ground, even US officials concede it will be nearly impossible to monitor Iraq's WMD efforts. The US and Britain also confront the massive expense of indefinitely maintaining major military forces in the Gulf.
Further, Iraq's key Security Council sympathizers - Russia, China, and France - are gaining international support for their renewed calls for an end to sanctions and an overhaul of UNSCOM. Russia has also endorsed Iraq's demand for the resignation of its Australian chief, Richard Butler, who is refusing to quit.
Business with Iraq
France, China, and Russia are eager to see sanctions end so they can pursue business contracts with Iraq, which owes France and Russia billions.
The three deny they are motivated by profit, and argue it is impossible to ensure total destruction of Iraq's WMD efforts. They also say sanctions have devastated ordinary Iraqis, but done little to hurt Saddam and his circle of supporters. UNSCOM, they say, should be replaced by a long-term monitoring system to detect overt resumption by Iraq of its illicit programs.
"We need a new UNSCOM," asserts French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine. "This assumes a new structure and a new function."
Some experts warn that the longer the dispute persists, the greater the harm to the UN. For one thing, they say, there could be an erosion in international compliance with the sanctions, which would undermine UN authority.
"The question is whether the US and Britain can maintain sanctions, given the divided Security Council," says Jonathan Tucker, a former UNSCOM inspector with the Monterey Institute of International Studies in Monterey, Calif.
Beyond this is the question of overall Security Council cooperation, particularly on issues of importance to the US.
"We give the appearance that we don't care what the Security Council thinks," says Spurgeon Keany of the Arms Control Association, a Washington think tank. "We are going to need Security Council support and acquiescence frequently in the future and this [US policy on Iraq] is not creating the right atmosphere."