Leading Article: Iraq's new test for the UN

Click to follow
The Independent Online
SADDAM HUSSEIN appears to be deliberately testing the will of the United Nations, meaning primarily that of the United States. Yesterday his mobs finally drove the UN monitoring team away from the Ministry of Agriculture, which it had wanted to inspect for evidence of clandestine weapons programmes. Other UN representatives have been intimidated, and President Saddam has refused to renew arrangements covering international humanitarian agencies in Iraq. He still refuses to sell oil on UN terms to raise money for food and medicine, and he has stepped up harassment of the Shias in the south. His air force is flying in breach of ceasefire terms.

These are his familiar tactics when he wants to find out how far he can go. Probably he has calculated that the UN is preoccupied with Yugoslavia, that the main priority of American foreign policy is the Middle East peace talks, and that, in any case, President Bush will not risk military action so close to the presidential election. He must see this as an ideal moment to flex his muscles and, if possible, get on with the development of nuclear and chemical weapons.

The confrontation raises three linked issues. The first is whether there is a real danger that he is close to getting his hands on weapons of mass destruction. The second is whether the United Nations can afford to allow its authority to be flouted. The third is how to get rid of President Saddam, since there will be no end to these confrontations for as long as he remains in power.

Information on his weapons programmes is sparse, which is why unease persists. The UN team was presumably on to something at the Ministry of Agriculture, or the Iraqis would not have been so aggressively secretive. The suspicions aroused by the episode make it all the more important that the monitoring operations of the United Nations should proceed without impediment.

But it is also vital to establish the principle that Security Council resolutions cannot be flouted with impunity. Once the council is seen to back down, its authority will be fatally weakened, not only in Iraq but elsewhere, and President Saddam will be only the first to take advantage. A deadline for compliance must be set, and preparations started for the use of military force if all else fails.

Whether this contributes to the fall of President Saddam is initially a secondary matter. The first requirements are to assert the authority of the United Nations and to stop him acquiring dangerous weapons. Obviously, however, it would be foolish not to combine any action that may be necessary, whether diplomatic or military, with attempts to remove the main source of trouble.

Renewed attempts at co-operation are now being made among the many groups that have tried with so little effect to topple President Saddam. Since they include Kurds, Arab nationalists, Shias and others, it is difficult to imagine how they are going to reconcile their conflicting interests and those of the powers that support them. Nevertheless, it would be tragic if the allies of the Gulf war failed to seize this opportunity to press them for a negotiated agreement on how Iraq should be governed. If such a clear alternative existed, and could attract support within Iraq, the life expectancy of the present regime would be much shorter.