U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell made the case for international action against Iraq at the United Nations Wednesday. In a calm and measured presentation, punctuated with displays of audio tapes, satellite photos and other intelligence information, Mr. Powell argued that Baghdad had committed a “material breach” of its obligations under U.N. resolutions and risked “serious consequences” for those actions — diplomatic language for a military strike. It was a bravado performance, matched only by the inadequacy of the Iraqi response. The world must now decide whether the U.N. will rise to the challenge or risk the fate of the League of Nations.

Mr. Powell’s appearance at the U.N. had been anticipated since U.S. President George W. Bush outlined his Iraq policy to the American people in his State of the Union address last week. U.S. officials tried to dampen expectations about the “proof” that Mr. Powell would provide. While some anticipated a replay of the dramatic confrontation between America’s U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson and his Soviet counterpart during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, Mr. Powell cautioned that he had no “smoking gun.” Maybe not, but the evidence he did provide was striking.

Mr. Powell made several key points. He argued that Iraq continues efforts to procure and develop weapons of mass destruction, including chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. He demanded that Iraq account for the tons of chemical and biological weapons it declared it possessed in the past but has no record of destroying. He claimed that Baghdad has made systematic efforts to hinder U.N. and International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors. Mr. Powell called it “a policy of evasion and deception that goes back 12 years, a policy set at the highest levels of the Iraqi regime.”

Some of the efforts cited by Mr. Powell were ingenious. Papers and materials were dispersed to the homes of facility staff members. Scientists were instructed on ways to mislead inspectors. Entire staffs at suspect facilities were replaced. Documents were put in cars and driven around the country for days to keep them from being found. One scientist was sent into hiding by the Iraqi government after being given a false death certificate to keep inspectors from interviewing him. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein told scientists that they were not to agree to be interviewed outside Iraq and said that anyone participating in such a meeting — or meeting inspectors without an official minder — would be considered guilty of treason.

More chilling was the revelation that Iraq had tested weapons on 1,600 convicts; autopsies were conducted to verify results. Equally disturbing was Mr. Powell’s claim that Baghdad had established links to al-Qaeda. He asserted that al-Qaeda groups were operating in northern Iraq and working with Iraqi agents. He claimed that Iraq, either acting alone or through al-Qaeda, would have no qualms about using weapons of mass destruction.

Mr. Powell’s evidence was compelling. He provided telephone intercepts of what he claimed were Iraqi officers discussing ways to hide nerve agents and “modified vehicles.” He showed satellite photographs said to reveal chemical-weapons sites that were bulldozed to hide evidence, ballistic missile sites being sanitized days before inspections and alleged al-Qaeda training camps.

Iraq’s response to the charges was predictable. Baghdad dismissed the evidence as “another Hollywood show” and said that Mr. Powell provided no proof of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. A more important response came from other permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. Judging from their statements, France, Russia and China did not feel the presentation was sufficient to change their positions. They admit that Iraq has not provided full cooperation with U.N. weapons inspectors, but they are willing to give Baghdad more time.

The point is not whether Iraq has weapons of mass destruction, however. Rather, as Mr. Powell noted, Iraq’s efforts to frustrate the will of the United Nations are the “casus belli.” Last year, the U.N. demanded, and Baghdad agreed, to comply with the weapons-inspections program. The attempts to hinder the inspectors are the “material breach” that Mr. Powell warned could trigger “serious consequences.” As British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw argued, playing “bad cop” to Mr. Powell, the U.N. must accept a painful choice: Admit the obvious — that Iraq is frustrating the will and the work of the U.N. — and take action, or turn away from that grim fact and allow Baghdad to flout the will of the international community. As Mr. Straw warned, the latter course is no less risky than the former. A failure to act would condemn the U.N. to the fate of its predecessor, the League of Nations. That should sober U.N. members, if Mr. Powell’s evidence did not already do so.

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