The U.N. Security Council prepared for formal discussions today of Iraq's latest rebuff of a U.N. weapons-inspection team, with the possibility that the West might once again punish Baghdad by launching another air strike.
U.N. officials said Tuesday that the 15-member council will be briefed by Rolf Ekeus, head of the U.N. commission assigned to oversee the weapons inspections in Iraq. Ekeus arrived in New York late Tuesday after conferring with the inspection team.
The dispute involves U.N. demands that Baghdad allow the inspectors to install surveillance cameras at two missile-testing sites so that they can monitor the dismantling of Iraq's Scud missile arsenal, ordered under the 1991 Persian Gulf War cease-fire agreement.
Nikita Smidovich, the chief U.N. inspector, said Monday that Baghdad's refusal amounts to a "material breach" of the cease-fire accord, prompting speculation that the allies might launch a military attack in retaliation.
However, the situation was clouded by diplomatic reports that Iraq had begun dismantling its remaining Scuds, either as an 11th-hour gesture or to protect them in case of Western attack. Such a move could significantly affect the Security Council's enthusiasm for any punitive action.
Diplomats said Tuesday that key U.N. officials will try to resolve the issue before the Security Council meeting today.
The discussion by the council is expected to determine whether there is a consensus for a military strike. The council already has provided the legal authority for military action, in a resolution that it passed June 18.
Any new attack on Iraq would be the third major strike that the West has launched this year. On Jan. 17, the United States fired 40 Tomahawk missiles at a weapons-production plant in Baghdad after the Iraqi government defied the weapons-inspection team.
And on June 27, the United States launched a missile strike against an intelligence complex in Baghdad in retaliation for Iraq's alleged role in a plot to kill former President George Bush when he was in Kuwait last April.
On Tuesday, State Department spokeswoman Sondra McCarty said Iraq's actions were "part of a broader pattern of conduct that demonstrates its desire to . . . restrict the scope of inspections and information-gathering."
She said the Security Council requires that Iraq accept the installation of the cameras and also accept the long-range monitoring program laid out in U.N. resolutions codifying the Gulf War cease-fire.
Despite its apparent acquiescence in private, the Iraqi government continued to maintain a belligerent public posture Tuesday, warning that unless the dispute is resolved soon, Baghdad might stop cooperating with the U.N. weapons-inspection effort.
The Associated Press reported that Sadi Mahdi Saleh, Speaker of the Iraqi National Assembly, warned that if the "dialogue goes on in vain . . we can stop dealing with the United Nations and its commission"--a move that would violate the post-Gulf War accord.
At the same time, Iraqi Foreign Minister Mohammed Said Sahaf said the demand to install cameras at missile sites came from "evil and extremist" elements at the United Nations. He called the U.N. resolutions unbalanced and biased against Iraq.
On a separate issue, Western officials said Iraq apparently has reversed its position and destroyed 11 pieces of chemical weapons production equipment that U.N. inspectors had targeted for elimination. As late as Friday, Baghdad had refused to obey U.N. orders.