WASHINGTON -- The United States implicitly threatened renewed hostilities against Iraq yesterday in a mounting confrontation between Saddam Hussein's regime and the United Nations.
The State Department drew a firm line at Iraq's continued refusal to allow U.N. weapons inspectors inside a Baghdad ministry to look for evidence on ballistic missiles.
"By continuing this type of violation, the Iraqi government thus is putting at risk the cease-fire that concluded Operation Desert Storm," said the spokesman, Richard Boucher.
The importance of the latest dispute is heightened by an accumulation of recent Iraqi moves that, overall, have weakened the United Nations grip imposed with last year's cease-fire:
* Iraq has balked at renewing an agreement with the United Nations to allow relief agencies to operate in that country, meaning that officials already there are operating without visas and new arrivals have had trouble entering.
* It also has repeatedly rejected U.N. terms for selling oil, thus further delaying badly needed humanitarian supplies for a population short of medicine and faced with sky-high food costs.
Iraq also is boycotting a commission marking off its new border with Kuwait.
Officials in capitals of the U.S.-led coalition that defeated Iraq last year are discussing options, including military action, to force an end to Iraq's 11-day standoff with U.N. inspectors outside the Agriculture Ministry, which they believe contains evidence of Iraq's development of ballistic missiles.
The inspectors, part of the U.N. special commission set up to oversee dismantling of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, suspect Iraq may still be concealing information.
The inspectors have been harassed by crowds and the official Iraqi press, which yesterday described them as "rats, scoundrels and stray dogs."
"There is absolute determination that access be granted," a senior U.S. official said. Although Iraqis may well have shredded the documents during the standoff, officials want to uphold the principle that U.N. inspectors can search anywhere.
Secretary of State James A. Baker III called U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali Tuesday night before a two-day fishing trip on his Wyoming ranch with President Bush and their sons.
The United States and other Security Council members have shownrepeated determination, including previous threats of military force, to support the inspection process set up in last year's cease-fire resolution. The aim is to remove any possibility of Iraq's developing new weapons of mass destruction to use against its neighbors in the volatile region.
But other Iraqi attempts to test and weaken U.N. restrictions have drawn less serious attention.
"There's been a creeping erosion of the lines that were laid down at the time of the cease-fire," says Laurie Mylroie of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Some U.S. officials were disturbed in April when the Pentagon explicitly sanctioned Iraqi flights south of the area -- beginning at the 36th parallel -- where coalition forces still control the skies.
Iraq's refusal to renew a memorandum of understanding with the U.N. that expired June 30 threatens continued smooth operation of humanitarian programs run by UNICEF. Already, staffers' movements around the country have been curtailed.
Iraq is stalling principally because it objects to the continued presence of 500 U.N. guards, mostly in the Kurdish area of northern Iraq. Meanwhile, some U.N. staffers in the Kurdish area have been subjected to intimidation tactics, and two Austrian U.N. guards were wounded in a grenade attack last week.
While the combination of a U.N. presence and coalition patrols has protected the Kurds from a repeat of last year's brutal crackdown, it hasn't eased the economic effects of an embargo imposed by Iraq.
Iraq's rejection of the U.N.'s terms for selling its oil means not only that humanitarian relief is restricted but that the U.N. will have to continue to scramble for money to maintain the inspections regime.
An alternative U.S. plan -- tapping frozen Iraqi oil proceeds to help pay U.N. costs and fund humanitarian relief -- has failed to win the support of coalition partners, including Britain.
Reuters contributed to this article.