The United Nations Security Council opens what is expected to be a very long debate Wednesday to give the rest of the U.N. membership a chance to air their views on the crisis over Iraq. The meeting was requested by South Africa as the current leader of the so-called non-aligned group of nations.
Many governments have already expressed reservations about possible unilateral military action by the United States against Baghdad. Some are opposed even if the Security Council approves the use of force.
South African ambassador Dumisani Kumalo, speaking on behalf of non-aligned countries, warns the council would be dragging the United Nations through uncharted territory if it opts for war over peaceful means to resolve the Iraqi crisis. He says it appears the road is open for resuming weapons inspections and that should be the council's first choice.
"If that is the opportunity that is there, we are saying to the Security Council 'why not take it' because we want this resolved peacefully. That is all we are saying. The United Nations was created to maintain peace," he said.
Many governments are also resentful that only a tiny minority of U.N. members will be making what they consider a very critical decision that would affect everyone. Fifteen governments sit on the Security Council, with the real power over action in the hands of the five veto-wielding permanent members: The United States, Britain, France, Russia and China.
The South African ambassador says if he had his wish, all 191 U.N. members would at least participate in the debate. "We want to express our views with the Security Council as they make this decision that we see as a decision that is unprecedented, that goes into new territory," he said. "And we think they need to hear from all of us because whatever action they approve is binding on all of us."
Not all U.N. members are likely to join the debate. But scores of governments have already signed up to talk.
Meanwhile, Iraq is giving mixed signals about access to weapons areas for the inspectors, who would be returning after a nearly four-year absence. In the latest report, Baghdad appears to insist that the inspectors would not have immediate access to eight presidential sites, in line with an agreement between Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Iraq in 1998.
The United States argues the old rules should not apply after all this time and wants new, tougher guidelines for the inspections.
Iraq continues to deny having weapons of mass destruction, which were banned under U.N. ceasefire terms following the 1991 Gulf War.