Iraq's defiance of the UN on every front, from its treatment of the Marsh Arabs, to its refusal to sell oil under UN terms and its obstructiveness towards UN weapons inspectors, has contributed to Saddam Hussein's image as a survivor. The decision to blockade a large swathe of his airspace, and the threat of renewed military action is the first step in a campaign to humiliate and if possible destroy the Iraqi leader.
The most likely flashpoints for military action are the protection of the Marsh Arabs, the enforcement of Iraq's new border with Kuwait and the actions of UN weapons inspectors.
The United Nations was not consulted before yesterday's decision by the United States, Britain and France to declare a 'no fly' zone over southern Iraq. The allies said they would shoot Iraqi aircraft caught flying in the area. Nor does any UN Security Council resolution authorise the actions in the name of the besieged Marsh Arabs and rebel Shias.
Instead, the allies were acting under a controversial principle of international law that permits military intervention in cases of grave humanitarian abuse. The military intervention to protect the Kurdish refugees a year ago was carried out on the same principle. Humanitarian abuses were not enough to provoke the US and its allies to create a similar zone in Bosnia, however, despite appeals from the government in Sarajevo - which underlines the political motivation of yesterday's action against Iraq.
Yesterday's initiative follows a vivid report to the UN Security Council last week by Max van der Stoel, the human rights rapporteur on Iraq, in which he complained that Baghdad was systematically trying to eradicate the centuries-old culture of the Marsh Arabs by bombing villages and uprooting residents and sending them to other parts of the country. But, while Mr van der Stoel's report laid the groundwork for the decision to create a 'no fly' zone, the extent of the area now out of bounds to Iraqi military aircraft - all Iraqi territory south of the 32nd parallel - is far larger than that being used by the Iraqi military to crush rebels and root out Shias hiding in the marshlands created by the confluence of the Euphrates and the Tigris rivers.
The air exclusion zone is but one of the many weapons at the disposal of the allies, as the political desire to humiliate Saddam Hussein increases with the approach of the US presidential election. Should Iraq refuse once again to allow UN weapons inspectors access to government buildings, the allies can act under the ceasefire resolution 687 and take military action. There is every indication that the UN inspectors in Iraq decided against provoking such an incident yesterday, because of the widespread publicity about their mission and the allegations that the UN was acting to promote President Bush's political agenda.
There will be room for action against Iraq should the UN humanitarian envoy, Jan Eliasson, fail to persuade the Iraqi government to renew an agreement allowing the UN to deploy hundreds of guards throughout the country to protect humanitarian aid. If Mr Eliasson does not get such assurances, he is expected to inform the Security Council that Baghdad is making peaceful humanitarian intervention impossible.
Another looming dispute expected to touch off a military confrontation with Iraq just in time for the US election is the border dispute between Iraq and Kuwait, which has been settled by a UN border commission which Iraq boycotted. The contested new border gives Kuwait back large chunks of land it has lost since 1950, including the naval base at Umm Qasr and big dockworks and industrial infrastructure worth billions of dollars to the south of the city. The UN plan also gives Kuwait control of Iraq's only outlet to the sea at the mouth of Umm Qasr.
Iraq has rejected the findings of the UN border commission, but the Security Council is expected to ratify them this week, and order that the border be marked out anew in September.