Confrontation with Iraq: UN sees Baghdad's point of view

THE HOSTILE front which Iraq has faced at the United Nations since the end of the Gulf war began to crumble yesterday in the face of mounting doubts in the international community about the scale of the bombing raids ordered by President George Bush and the lack of specific UN authorisation for the attacks.

Russia, which has supported the United States thoughout the Gulf crisis, has raised its concerns with the State Department about the threat to Iraqi citizens and the dangers posed to Russians in Baghdad by the escalating crisis. Pakistan, a non-permanent member of the Security Council, was also bristling with anger according to diplomatic sources. Other non- permanent members of the Council were making their position known to the US, Britain and France in more discreet ways.

Egypt, though not a member of the Council, wields considerable influence in the region and can always count on having the ear of the UN Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, an Egyptian. The complaints of Cairo's Foreign Minister, Amr Moussa, about double standards at the UN for the Arab world resonated throughout the diplomatic community yesterday.

Pakistan, a member of the Islamic conference, has been vainly waiting for the West to agree a resolution authorising enforcement of Bosnia's no-fly zone. Similar anger was being vented by diplomats over the failure of the Council to take measures compelling Israel to heed its resolution condemning the deportation of Palestinians as a violation of the Geneva Conventions.

The Security Council met last night amid considerable unease that cruise missiles had been launched by the US against a target in a city suburb. Senior UN figures complained bitterly that the US action was out of all proportion to Iraqi contraventions of UN resolutions.

Diplomats normally hostile to Iraq conceded that it had a point when it said it could not guarantee the safety of flights by UN weapons inspectors during the hour a week in which their planes were scheduled to pass through the southern no-fly zone, as long as allied planes were enforcing it. The US, British and French reaction that this amounted to a 'material breach' of Iraq's UN obligations is now seen as highly questionable.

A consensus among several Council members was that the escalation against Iraq was a calculated effort by Mr Bush to destroy all prospect of the President-elect, Bill Clinton, coming to an accommodation with President Saddam Hussein when he takes office, as he hinted he might do in a New York Times interview. 'The bombing raids have more to do with internal US politics than they do with Iraq's violations of UN resolutions,' a senior UN figure said yesterday. 'By bombing Baghdad again, Bush has painted Clinton into a corner and set the US policy for the foreseeable future.'

The Council was also to hear a proposal by Mr Boutros-Ghali that the UN force on the border with Kuwait be expanded from 500 unarmed observers - who were in no position to stop the Iraqi border raids which triggered the crisis - to three battalions, totalling 3,600 troops.

Last night's meeting marked the first real airing of the Iraqi crisis by the Council. As the meeting convened, diplomats were increasingly indignant that the bombing raids were continuing in the north of Iraq, before the issue could be further discussed.

Although the Secretary-General initially supported the US-led air raids, as they have continued and spread senior officials have complained privately that the legal justification for them is 'tenuous' at best. They point out that while Iraq violated the no-fly zones in the north and south of the country, this did not confer a right on the allies to retaliate without the specific authority of a 'Chapter Seven' Council resolution authorising the use of force.

Leading article, page 18

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