The United Nations is at best a reluctant partner in the next phase of the global war on terror. For those who doubted that, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan made it clear last week he cannot be counted on when the going gets tough: After Iraq fired on U.S. warplanes patrolling a no-fly zone over Iraq, he chided Washington--not Baghdad.
Mr. Annan said the Bush administration was wrong to contend that the attacks put Iraq in "material breach" of the UN's Nov. 8 resolution. While the resolution calls for Iraqi disarmament, the secretary general denied that last week's attack by surface-to-air missiles firing in from the city of Mosul on U.S. and British planes violated the UN decree or Baghdad's acceptance of the resolution: "Let me say that I don't think the council will say this is in contravention of the resolution."
Paragraph 8 of Resolution 1441 says Baghdad cannot "take or threaten hostile acts" against a UN member "seeking to uphold any council resolution." The Bush administration insists that applies to U.S. servicemen flying the air patrols. But most Security Council members--including Britain--say it applies only to weapons inspectors in Baghdad.
The rift should put an early end to the U.S.-UN honeymoon on policy toward Iraq, even though attacks on the patrols are nothing new. Forces under Saddam Hussein have fired on similar missions in more than 180 documented incidents since 1997, using radar and anti-aircraft weaponry outlawed under existing UN resolutions.
Supported by Britain, France, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, the United States under NATO established the no-fly zones in 1991 to put some muscle behind UN resolutions. Those measures called for Saddam to cease his brutal repression of Kurdish minorities in the north and Shiites in the south. The patrols have protected both groups and allowed UN humanitarian work in both regions, which had been cut off to outsiders by Saddam after the Gulf War. Yet the Security Council has never formally approved the no-fly zones, but has never formally denounced them either.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, in Chile at the time of the Iraqi attacks, challenged UN dovishness. "The United Nations, in order to be relevant, to have any standing in the world, cannot have 16 resolutions ignored by any country," Mr. Rumsfeld said in an interview with a Chilean newspaper. "If they really don't care, they shouldn't pass resolutions."
Mr. Rumsfeld also warned that the Pentagon would not wait for marching orders from the UN Security Council. Hours after his remarks, on Nov. 20, U.S. warplanes bombed three air defense communications facilities in southern Iraq. U.S. Central Command said the three targeted facilities were unmanned and located between the cities of Al Kut and Basra. U.S. forces have been targeting such facilities increasingly since last summer.