Spy vs. Lie

Iraq's claim in a thick report to the UN that it has no chemical or biological weapons may be believed in Paris and Moscow, which have their own reasons to let Saddam Hussein off the hook.

But not in London and Washington, which must worry that those illicit weapons of terror might someday soon be used on their citizens.

That's the essence of the big-power divide over Iraq's dubious declaration - and the different measures of risk and self- interest it evokes. That will be the essential dynamic when the UN Security Council combs through documents as thick as a Manhattan phonebook in the days ahead.

Unless US intelligence provides clear-cut evidence to the contrary, Iraq's report may just hang out there with enough credibility for Russia, France, and many other Council members to let them hold off a decision on disarming Iraq by force.

But such a holding action would require them to believe Iraq has willingly and with humble heart decided to rid itself of tons of raw materials for nerve gas and stocks of biological agents that UN inspectors know it once had. That's quite a stretch.

Iraq's apparent act of contrition in the face of massing American forces in the Gulf knows no bounds. Its retreat on paper to possessing mere conventional weaponry appears both tactical and false, especially in light of having been caught in big lies by UN inspectors during the 1990s.

But for Council members opposed to swift disarmament of Iraq, the issue is not so much Iraqi's truthfulness but whether to let the US set new groundrules for big countries taking preemptive action against smaller, dangerous states.

Nations that haven't suffered a Sept. 11-type attack may require a higher level of evidence than the US about Iraq's illegal weapons. They may read Hussein's intent more generously and tolerate more risk while inspectors plod along. They may have more attachment to the UN as the only embodiment of "international community" and see it as a constraint on the US more than an enforcer against Iraq.

Bush may decide by Christmas whether to seek a Council vote on war. If denied, Bush will likely take preemptive action with a few allies, laying down new rules for any nation to attack an enemy that only has the potential to do harm.

So much of the new world order may now rest on the credibility of US intelligence against Iraq's report.

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