In seeking to maintain economic sanctions on Iraq until Saddam Hussein is forced from power, the United States has no more effective ally than the Baghdad butcher himself. His latest escapade in self-destruction came this week when a United Nations inspection team was denied access to a suspected nuclear weapons development site but was able to eyeball the actual removal of large quantities of equipment.
When the Security Council heard the observer team's first-hand report and then was treated to an extraordinary Pentagon briefing featuring satellite pictures of cover-up operations, it authorized its president to protest formally and demand "access to the sites where this material has been transported." Iraq pledged its cooperation but not before accusing the United States of "empty allegations" as part of a campaign to prolong the embargo.
Once again the world is witness to Saddam's stupidity and clumsiness. Until the latest episode, sentiment had been building to allow Iraq to sell some of its oil so it could feed tens of thousands of its citizens threatened with starvation and disease. Now that sentiment is much diluted even if the plight of the Iraqi people is not. The Bush administration finds itself in a stronger position to keep the sanctions in place if that is its wish.
On humanitarian grounds, there is a compelling case to overcome the frightful economic consequences of Saddam's blunder into Kuwait and the U.S.-led military campaign to throw him out. But the dictator's continuing hold on power, thus confounding U.S. expectations that his own generals would overthrow him, complicates the whole situation. Oil earnings that would enable Saddam to rebuild his military machine are unacceptable. The U.N. might consider an approach under which it would control these earnings and use them to finance an aid program under its direct supervision.
Meanwhile, U.N. teams should vigorously pursue the identification and destruction of all Iraqi weapons of mass destruction while the United States and its allies deploy a rapid response force in southern Turkey to protect not only the Kurds in northern Iraqi but the Shiites in the southern regions of the country. Saddam Hussein must be kept in a tight bind. Even more, he must be toppled by the continued pressure of selective economic sanctions so that his poor, wounded country can at last have surcease.