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Get ready to hear plenty of saber-rattling in regard to Iraq over the next few days.

Then start hoping that the sabers aren't used for anything besides making enough noise to get Baghdad to live up to the cease-fire agreement in the Persian Gulf war by destroying its missile production facilities.If Saddam Hussein won't honor that agreement, the United Nations may have little choice except to bomb those facilities. Let's hope it doesn't come to that.

This crisis arose after a U.N. inspection team left Iraq without being allowed to start destroying the weapons, and the U.N. Security Council gave Baghdad until mid-March to comply with the cease-fire accord.

So strained is the situation that the Bush administration is reported to be considering a military strike against Iraq more seriously than at any time since the gulf war ended.

Since Saddam has initially defied but subsequently complied with U.N. demands several times in the past 12 months, there is room to hope that Baghdad will back down again.

But there should be no room for dickering over the terms for compliance. Saddam insists that some military equipment could be converted to peaceful uses, and he wants an end to the economic embargo against Iraq. Such conditions should be unacceptable. They amount to efforts to water down decisions already made and agreed to by Iraq. Any backpedaling by the U.N. would only invite further demands from Iraq.

If military action must be taken, it is bound to invite accusations that President Bush is just trying to impress American voters. Any such suspicions can be at least muted by making sure any bombing attack on Iraq is not undertaken unilaterally but has U.N. sanction. Moreover, humanitarian reasons dictate that any military action be limited to a few targets and be completed quickly.

Meanwhile, this unhappy situation teaches some pointed lessons about economic sanctions like those being applied against Iraq. The fact that Baghdad keeps trying to get those sanctions lifted shows that the embargo is hurting. But by itself the embargo isn't exerting enough pressure on Baghdad.

That much should be clear from an independent study commissioned by the Pentagon. The study concludes that the sanctions are eroding, allowing Iraq to import food and export oil and gold. What's more, international inspectors have reported significant improvement in Iraq's shattered water and power supply plants in recent months. The power supply, in fact, is sometimes better now than in neighboring Iran.

Iraq, then, still has the capacity to make plenty of trouble for its neighbors. And trouble for them ultimately can mean trouble for any nation relying on the Persian Gulf for much of its oil.

Saddam knows the sabers that are only rattling now have been used before. Must they draw blood again? Ultimately, the answer will be provided not in Washington or at the United Nations but in Baghdad.