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Last December, the United States and Britain launched Operation Desert Fox, a four-day bombing campaign on Iraq that effectively ended the inspections regime established by the United Nations after the 1991 Persian Gulf War. The U.N. Security Council had been divided over the meaning and implementation of the sanctions regime; the attacks drove the wedge deeper. The differences have yet to be reconciled. The inspectors have not returned, and the U.N. has focused its attention elsewhere — Kosovo and Indonesia, to name two prominent disputes — since then. But the Iraq problem has not gone away. As the sanctions regime enters its 10th year, it is time to take stock, assess priorities and redesign the program to close the gap between aims and results.

Virtually unnoticed, the air war against Iraq continues. U.S. and British officials acknowledge that they have launched more than 100 attacks in the “no-fly zones” in northern and southern Iraq (Those zones, it should be mentioned, were set up by the coalition that won the Gulf War, not the U.N.). Over 100 people have been killed. Earlier this week, a military radar facility was bombed, the first airstrike after a five-day lull. Reportedly, 20 people were killed in the attack.

This hidden war is more intense than it seems. While the U.S. and British militaries talk of “attacks,” each attack is made up of several airstrikes. It is estimated that the number of airstrikes could be over 500, or more than two a day since the beginning of the year. U.S. and British officials argue that they are merely acting in “self-defense,” responding to “provocations” by Iraqi forces, but such provocations include turning on radars, and not necessarily firing shots. This week’s attacks were on a radar facility that was south of the northern no-fly zone, technically out of the range of the area patrolled by the coalition forces.

There are two remarkable things about this campaign. First, it is virtually invisible. A low-grade war involving two of the world’s leading nations and ostensibly carrying the imprimatur of the U.N. has become so utterly commonplace that it gets hardly any attention at all.

The second point, however, is even more important: The war is having almost no positive effect. The government in Baghdad is unbowed, the coalition forces have yet to bend Iraq to its will and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is as powerful as ever. On the other side of the ledger, the results are even more damning. Ten years of U.N.-imposed sanctions have left a horrific imprint on Iraq. A recent report by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said the mortality rate of Iraqi children under the age of five had more than doubled this decade. The authors blamed the effects on two wars, Iraq’s collapsed economy and the sanctions regime.

The UNICEF report also noted that the mortality rate for children of the same age in the areas not under the control of Baghdad had declined by over 20 percent in the last five years. Some will say that is proof that the Iraqi government is using its children as pawns; the truth is more complex. The children in the other areas have been the recipients of international humanitarian assistance, the land is better suited for agriculture and it is easier to smuggle contraband into those regions.

The U.N. has two purposes: promoting international peace and security and alleviating human suffering. Rarely have the two clashed so directly as they have in the case of Iraq. The sanctions regime has hurt the Baghdad government, but it has not been crippled. Efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction have been set back, but they could be resumed. Short of installing a new government, there can be no guarantee that Iraq will not threaten its neighbors — nor is there any certainty that a new government would be any more peaceable than the current one.

Iraqi President Hussein has never hesitated to use his weakest citizens to further his own ends. But his willingness to play the tyrant does not mean that the rest of the world should be ready to be his accomplice. The U.N. must now look long and hard at the sanctions regime that is in place and decide if it is working. If so, and if it is achieving its desired purpose, then the U.N. should strengthen the sanctions and put its full weight behind them. If the air campaign is the right thing to do, then the Security Council should endorse it and give the U.S. and Britain the international legal backing they deserve. If they are not, then they should be lifted. Anything less demeans the U.N. and punishes the innocent.

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