Saddam's challenge leaves UN paralysed

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THE REACTION at the UN was muted yesterday to the latest challenge to its authority thrown down by Iraq's Saddam Hussein. There was no word from Kofi Annan, the Secretary General, who was preparing to leave last night for a long-arranged visit to Portugal. And there was nothing from the Security Council.

The council seems likely to remain muted today, when it will hear directly from Richard Butler, the head of the disarmament effort, whose abruptly- curtailed talks in Baghdad on Monday was the trigger to the latest crisis. There will be some kind of public tut-tut for sure, but probably nothing more.

In part this is explained by sheer weariness with what the White House termed the resumption of this "cat-and-mouse" game that Saddam has played with the international community so many times before. But there is another, much more important reason: the Security Council is unable to act decisively. And it is unable to act decisively because it is divided. And that, of course, is precisely why Saddam teases it so.

For the council, unity is its only bulwark between authority and powerlessness. And the only way unity - or at last the appearance of it - can be maintained is by taking the most lily-livered approach to Baghdad possible. This crisis, therefore, may take weeks, if not months, to crank up to a new crescendo.

If Britain and the United States had their way, the script would be different. London and Washington have no difficulty in perceiving that by suspending co-operation with Unscom, the body that Mr Butler heads, Iraq is in violation both of the UN resolutions adopted since the end of the Gulf War and with the so-called Memorandum of Understanding negotiated personally by Saddam and Mr Annan last February.

"Basically, refusing to co-operate with Unscom puts them in breach of the Memorandum of Understanding," insisted a diplomat. London and Washington would not hesitate declaring that Iraq is in so-called "material breach" of what has been imposed upon it by the UN.

But those are words that send not just Iraq but also its allies on the Security Council into fits of indignation and hand-wringing. That means Russia especially and maybe France. "Material breach" is the diplo-speak button that is pressed when Washington wants to send in the troops and the Tomahawks, even though the White House says it can strike unilaterally if it thinks UN resolutions are being snubbed.

The irony of this latest friction is that Iraq had appeared closer to satisfying Mr Butler and the conditions for the sanctions against it to be lifted than ever before. Mr Butler has this week publicly acknowledged that he was "very close" to closing the book on both the missile and chemical weapons areas of his investigations.

One area that remains especially contentious, however, is biological weapons. Even Russia would baulk at Saddam's demand that the responsibility for investigating his arsenals be handed to some body other than Unscom and beyond the scope of the UN. On that, the Council can be expected to remain as one.

It would similarly prove immovable if Saddam attempts actually to jettison the Unscom inspectors from his country and declare they can never come back. But as the crisis stands now - bad but not yet terminally so - the council will remain low-key, if not jelly-like.

Because if London and Washington push for anything more, the Security Council will probably fall apart.

And then only one man will be laughing. And he lives in a palace in Iraq. Or rather eight palaces.