UNITED NATIONS -- The U.N. Security Council agreed yesterday to send the chief of its weapons inspection effort to Baghdad with the implicit warning of renewed military action if Iraq continues to block monitoring of its weapons programs.
The decision escalated a new confrontation with Iraq less than three weeks after an American missile attack was launched in retaliation for an alleged Iraqi attempt to assassinate former President George Bush.
The outcome will test the Security Council's determination to ensure that Iraq remains unable to threaten its neighbors with weapons of mass destruction far into the future.
"I think the Iraqi government is playing with fire and I hope that they will stop playing with fire," said British Ambassador Sir David Hannay, this month's Security Council president.
Rolf Ekeus, who heads the special commission set up to destroy and monitor Iraq's dangerous weapons, will leave New York tonight and is expected to arrive in Baghdad Thursday.
The aim of his mission, he told reporters, is to impress upon Iraq's leaders that they must accept the principle of long-term monitoring.
Iraq has eventually backed down in previous disputes over weapons destruction, either under threat of force or, as in January, after an attack. But Iraq says it finds the monitoring particularly offensive because, by definition, it would keep it under U.N. watch indefinitely.
"This is a new dimension in a sense because we are entering this future monitoring stage, which is an issue of special significance," Mr. Ekeus said. Noting the U.N.'s past success, he said: "The idea is that we should not stop that process now."
Iraq has refused to accept the monitoring until its compliance with the U.N. weapons-destruction program is rewarded with an easing of sanctions. But the Security Council, saying that weapons-monitoring is indissolubly linked with other anti-Iraq resolutions, demands total Iraqi compliance before an easing of sanctions is considered.
Mr. Ekeus did not explicitly threaten military action if Iraq doesn't comply. But the Security Council reiterated its June 18 threat of "serious consequences" if Iraq didn't comply.
If Iraq continues to block installation of cameras at Iraqi missile test sites, the U.N. could demand that Iraq destroy the equipment and, failing that, it could initiate military action to destroy them itself.
Diplomats said yesterday that if such action were required, the United States might launch a cruise missile attack or air strikes under existing authority to enforce U.N. resolutions against Iraq.
But military destruction of all the equipment would be complicated, a U.N. official said yesterday, since Iraq already has dispersed much of the equipment.
"One missile per piece of equipment would be expensive," he noted.
On Sunday, Iraq barred U.N. weapons inspectors from placing seals on equipment and concrete platforms at two missile testing sites, each about 40 miles from Baghdad. The seals are an interim measure; the Security Council believes installation of cameras at the missile-testing site is the only reliable means of long-term monitoring, Sir David said.
President Clinton, on vacation in Honolulu, said he was staying out of the conflict for the present.
"I think I better let the U.N. work on that," he said. ". . . They've got a strategy and I want to let them do their work for a couple of days before I say anything."