IRAQ has been on the back burner for a while. Its various problems are expected to heat up, even boil over, again this spring, with messy results. Iraq's strongman, President Saddam Hussein, may soon be flexing his muscles once more.
The United States-led coalition to liberate Kuwait did not want to create a power vacuum in Iraq but preferred to think that Saddam would be replaced, or at least, figuratively speaking, defanged. They emphatically affirmed the integrity of a sovereign Iraq, even one having military forces, but with a difference.
United Nations Security Council resolution 687 of April 3, 1991, set the cease-fire terms. It called for complete destruction of Iraq's nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons as well as its long-range missile capability. Verification by a UN Special Commission, UNSCOM, and by the International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA, was to be foolproof and unlimited. A strict customs regime was to ensure that Iraq could not resume import of weaponsmaking materials.
The disarmament conditions were backed by an economic blockade, to be lifted when the UN Security Council found Iraq to be in full compliance. But there's the rub. The IAEA says that nuclear disarmament is complete. UNSCOM feels that chemical weapons and missiles are pretty well ruled out.
Lately, however, doubts have arisen over biological weapons: Inspectors have uncovered Iraq's importation, before the war, of enough bacterial culture to produce two tons of biological agents. What happened? Officials say it was ``destroyed by rampaging mobs in the troubled early months of 1991.''
Transparently, this is a ``the dog ate my homework'' story. UNSCOM inspectors have identified the hardware used in biological warfare: fermenters, freeze-driers, fillers to load material into bombs. It is widely assumed that Iraq, which used poison gas in the Iran-Iraq war and on its own dissident Kurds, had also been seriously engaged with bacteriological research: typhoid, cholera, anthrax, even botulin toxin. Denials notwithstanding, that the Iraqis had freeze-driers raises the possibility of toxins stored for future use.
Iraq asserts that it has fulfilled the conditions for lifting the economic embargo and should be allowed to trade and sell oil freely. It complains that sanctions have inflicted inhuman suffering on its people.
The United States, seeing Saddam as an unregenerate danger to regional peace, wants sanctions tightly maintained. Others want to relax or lift them. Iraq owes France some $5 billion and Russia $7 billion for earlier shipments of weapons and supplies. Even staunch Britain talks about putting Saddam ``into a bigger cage.'' One lesser sanction, prohibiting all nations from selling goods to Iraq, will be extended by the Council on March 13.
But the more important ban on Iraq's unrestricted oil sales may soon lead to a showdown. If the US vetoes relaxation of the embargo, as it threatens, Saddam could expel the UNSCOM inspectors without fear of reprisal. Given prevailing sentiment, and French and Russian veto power, the Council would not act. If the US moved alone, it would risk further isolation. And as in a bad dream, Saddam could start building himself up once again to dominate the Arab countries of the Gulf, with all that this implies. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.