DUBAI - A U.S.-led attack on Iraq without the approval of the United Nations would spell doom for the world body and be another ominous sign of unilateralism in international affairs, say analysts in the region.
Already, the United States has come under fire in many Middle Eastern countries for eyeing not really the weapons of mass destruction Iraq is suspected of having - but the ouster of Saddam Hussein.
If and when it pushes through, such a war could become a case study to implement U.S. unilateralism not just in the Middle East, but in other parts of the world as well, critics point out.
So far, U.N. officials report ''good progress'' after two days of talks in Baghdad over arms issues. Washington is not keen on using the inspection path to resolve the crisis over Iraq - but France and Germany are now eyeing a proposal to send more U.N. presence and hold more inspections there.
But if after the inspections process, ''all three or even one of the permanent Security Council members - France, Russia and China - decide to exercise veto powers against military action, and the United States still attacks Iraq, where does that leave the United Nations?'' asked political analyst Ghassan al-Jashi.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan reiterated on Saturday that using force to enforce Security Council resolutions ''is not an issue for any one state, but for the international community as a whole''.
But those like Scott Ritter, a former U.S. Marine and former U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq between 1991 and 1998, say the imminent conflict in Iraq is about Washington's ''impure motive'' in targeting Saddam Hussein and marks the ''beginning of America's imperialist policy of world domination''.
''There's a drunk at the wheel of U.S. foreign policy, drunk on power and arrogance,'' the controversial Ritter told a packed forum here Saturday, after coming from Japan where he kept up his criticism of U.S. handling of the inspection process in Iraq.
Because Washington's main aim is to depose Saddam Hussein, ''the United States would block attempts to set up long-term inspections (in Iraq),'' he told a lecture at the Zayed Center for Coordination and Follow-up.
This approach makes most in the Arab world believe that the United States would attack with or without a new U.N. Security Council resolution.
For instance, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's top aide Ibrahim Nafie predicted in 'Al Ahram Weekly' on Friday that the United States would attack Iraq ''within weeks''.
''That the United States wants to attack Iraq, with or without U.N. approval, is clear not just from the present crisis, but since last year,'' Jashi said. He recalled that in June last year, when Iraq and the United Nations were talking about the possibility of inspectors returning to Iraq, ''the United States was hinting that even if the inspectors were allowed back, it might not be enough to prevent a war''.
Ritter said more time is needed for the inspections in Iraq. ''We have a much healthier inspection environment today than we've ever had. The recent Iraqi concessions, including allowing some scientists to be interviewed privately, means that a credible inspections process could get underway,'' Ritter pointed out.
Ritter had resigned from the U.N. inspection function in August 1998, citing lack of U.N. and U.S. support for his disarmament techniques. In December that year, the U.N. weapons inspectors left Iraq, saying Saddam Hussein was hindering their work. But ''if the weapons inspectors fail to find anything incriminating, Iraq will become a part of the international community with Saddam Hussein as its leader, thus defeating the policy of regime change which Washington is aiming for,'' he said.
''It is the start of American imperial policy of global domination. Iraq cannot be treated in isolation,'' Ritter maintained. ''North Korea will be the next target for regime removal and it is very unlikely that they will just stand by and have the U.S. implement its policy.''
That could well mean the beginning of the end for the United Nations, experts say.
''Let there be no doubt that Iraq did possess weapons of mass destruction,'' Ritter said, adding: ''But Iraq no longer possesses a meaningful capacity to produce weapons of mass destruction.''
He dubbed U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell's case for a U.S.-led war on Baghdad, which he presented before the U.N. Security Council last week, as ''smoking mirrors'' that had nothing to do with reality.
But defending the Bush administration's hardline approach, the vice president of the Washington-based Middle East Institute, David Mack, said in an interview: ''The United States tried to use the policy of containment with Iraq in the mid-1990s, but failed. Consequently, the U.S. administration contemplated a regime change.''
Mach, a former U.S. ambassador to the UAE and a key figure in charge of garnering political support for Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm during the Gulf War, rejected the assertion that the United States was undermining the United Nations and said it actually decided to cooperate with the United Nations in passing the anti-Iraq resolution in November.
Mack said it is not too late for Saddam to stop a war, but this would require total disarmament through ''proactive cooperation''. He cited as examples South Africa, Kazakhstan and Ukraine, all of whom opted for disarmament and said Iraq should have followed them.
The diplomat-turned-academic said that if Saddam complies with the U.N. demands, then Bush would still find ways to consider that a ''strategic victory'' and -- avert war.
However, Mack said: ''But Saddam Hussein's record shows that he won't step down voluntarily and go into exile as suggested by Washington in order to avert a war.''
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