WASHINGTON -- A divided U.N. Security Council wrestled in New York last night with how to compel Iraq to halt its killing of civilians, with diplomats skeptical that the United Nations would be able to mount any credible threat short of the military intervention opposed by the United States and its allies.
With President Saddam Hussein's forces now controlling all major towns in Iraq, according to the Bush administration, questions also mounted on the world's response to the thousands of refugees trapped at the northern border and thousands more who will be caught in the south as U.S. forces leave.
The Security Council met in closed session last night to debate a French-sponsored resolution condemning repression in Iraq and demanding an end to attacks on civilians, Iraqi dialogue with Kurds and other minorities, and access for them to humanitarian aid.
The Soviet Union and China, both permanent members with veto power, opposed the proposal as of yesterday afternoon on the grounds that it amounted to interference in Iraq's internal affairs, diplomats said.
But Western officials said that high-level efforts were being made to persuade both governments that Iraq's civil war, by sending thousands of refugees into neighboring Turkey and Iran, now threatened regional peace and was therefore no longer just a domestic matter.
U.S. officials say the United Nations can refuse to lift economic sanctions until Iraq changes its policies. But it was unclear whether this threat would be made explicit in the new resolution.
Several diplomats who were interviewed expressed doubt that, given Iraq's record, the Security Council would be able to force compliance.
"I don't quite know what we can threaten them with," one said. Added a U.S. official, "We don't have any assurance that [Mr. Hussein] won't make stupid decisions again."
President Bush has opposed U.S. military intervention in Iraq's civil war, and no nation in the anti-Iraq coalition has urged otherwise.
Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told wire service reporters yesterday that U.S. warplanes would continue to patrol Iraqi airspace "for an indefinite period" and that their eventual removal would hinge on Mr. Hussein's compliance with the United Nations' cease-fire resolution.
Iraq has not said whether it will accept the tough cease-fire terms, which would dismantle its biological and chemical
weapons, halt its nuclear weapons program, maintain an arms embargo and earmark oil revenues to pay reparations.
If it did, General Powell said, a U.N. border-monitoring force would be able to move into place in "a matter of weeks."
Still, he said, "I am several weeks away, more than a month away" from a total withdrawal of the U.S. troops in occupied Iraq.
The U.S.-occupied zone has drawn thousands of refugees from Iraq's civil war. Many, it is feared, are draft-age males who may have deserted Iraq's military and could be targets for a massacre.
Despite U.S. requests, the International Committee of the Red Cross
has not accepted responsibility for these refugees.
In the north, where tens of thousands of refugees are fleeing xTC Kurdish areas, Turkey has closed its borders, and Iran has
appealed for international aid to cope with the influx.
The United States has asked Turkey to keep its border open and has promised to give additional help through multinational organizations, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said yesterday. It was unclear whether the United States would send aid indirectly to Iran.
As the human toll from Iraq's civil war continued to dull the glow from the allied victory, Democrats here remained divided on how critical to be of the Bush administration's failure to back Iraq's rebels.
Though some Democratic lawmakers have exhorted the president to use force against Iraqi helicopter gunships, most have remained silent. Congressional aides were uncertain how tough a reception Secretary of State James A. Baker III would get when he testifies on Capitol Hill next week.
The problem is that many Democrats opposed the use of force to push Iraqi troops from Kuwait, warning that such an involvement would inevitably lead to U.S. involvement in a protracted, internecine conflict.
"It's a real dilemma," conceded one senior aide to the House Democratic leadership. "But the reality is that we are now in a position to stop a moral catastrophe. It is wrong for us to stand by and do nothing."
Democratic pollster Peter Hart said that Iraq's civil war has left the public with "a little bit of a bitter aftertaste."
"More people are asking questions about the war than I would have expected," he said.