Saddam outlasts the UN

Saddam Hussein OF Iraq has won again. A UN Security Council resolution meant by its British and American authors to restore a tight disarmament regimen leaves him, in fact, ahead of the game. Full of holes and "creative ambiguities" that play into Saddam's hands, it is admittedly unenforceable.

A year ago, heavy US aerial bombing punished him for restricting UNSCOM, the special commission established by the Council to eliminate Saddam's weapons of mass destruction. He replied by expelling the inspectors from Iraq. The Council then labored over resuming inspections. Eleven months of convoluted palaver, negotiating, and drafting by the Council's five permanent members finally brought forth a mouse.

The resolution adopted on Dec. 17 does away with UNSCOM. In its place it creates a new agency: UNMOVIC, the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission - a pale imitation of its predecessor. Far from having UNSCOM's clear mandate and original freedom of action, UNMOVIC is hobbled by UN jargon and folded into the UN bureaucracy. Baghdad says these inspectors, too, will not be admitted, but that could change.

Toothless watchdogs hold certain advantages for Iraq. UNMOVIC is the key to lifting rigorous sanctions imposed on Iraq in 1991 to ensure disarmament. Blind inspectors cannot see any violations, enabling Baghdad's friends on the Council - veto-wielding Russia, France, and China - to argue there are none. They have long urged the end of sanctions as the cause of the Iraqi people's suffering. Baghdad owes them billions for past supplies and services.

No matter that Saddam could have lifted restrictions at any time by fulfilling the obligation he accepted under the cease-fire terms after Desert Storm to abandon chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons programs, and long-range missiles. Questions about them all, incidentally, remain unanswered.

The new resolution reverses one essential. Instead of Saddam having to prove his innocence, UNMOVIC must prove him guilty. But it is playing with an intriguer and prevaricator who has with impunity flouted every previous resolution and, with the help of friends, smuggled contraband on a large scale. This is the man who invaded and annexed Kuwait, torched its oil fields, and still holds its national archives and 600 prisoners (alive or dead) seized in Kuwait. He used poison gas against Iran and his own Kurdish population. Saddam is no amateur.

The Security Council has made concessions to bring him on board. It removed all limits on Iraq's oil sales, giving him additional billions of dollars a year. And it grants blanket approval for import of humanitarian goods, which could include dual-use items with military applications. Saddam will eat the carrot and ignore the stick.

What can be done? Britain is obviously tired of the ongoing expensive and fruitless air attacks in Iraq's no-fly zones. France long since opted out. The United States, like a football team with line plunge as its only play, soldiers on. It sticks to a dual containment of Iraq and Iran when the way out of the dilemma is through Iran. At present, Washington has no leverage in Tehran and is hampered by the fact that, except for Kuwait, the Arab states in the Gulf are more afraid of Iran than Iraq.

Turning this around could inspire cooperation that would make the arms embargo effective and close major smuggling loopholes. While many in Iran oppose the hate-America propaganda, power in Tehran is still in the hands of the mullahs. In Washington, the D'Amato Act prevents the important normalization of economic relations while Iran badly needs American trade and investment. It will take years of coherent, open US policy to regain the respect that the Clinton administration and the Republican Congress have frittered away. Fortunately, it will be years before Saddam could again be the menace he was in 1990. But the window of opportunity will not be open forever.

*Richard C. Hottelet, a longtime foreign correspondent for CBS, writes on world affairs.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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