SADDAM HUSSEIN does not feel sorry for provoking the Gulf War. On Monday, the anniversary of its start, he recalled the conflict as a time when "true believers . . . stood up to oppose the tyrants and the renegade oppressors of the age. . . . Facing the trench of Faith was the trench of Disbelief--a foul-smelling, swindling, evil-scheming, sinful, aggressive and renegade trench." Saddam then called upon his countrymen to put aside material need so that Iraq's resources could be devoted to fighting the nation's foul-smelling enemies.

With rhetoric like that, Saddam Hussein makes the case for continued pressure on his regime as eloquently as his adversaries. And yet, at the United Nations this week, Russia, France and China have been doing their best to ensure that renewed weapons inspections in Iraq are delayed or ineffective. As a result, Saddam Hussein is getting more time to build his arsenal, and the United Nations is being weakened. Other rogues are learning that they can look to three permanent members of the U.N. Security Council to indulge such behavior as invading a neighbor state and threatening others with annihilation.

The current delay tactics focus on the question of who should run a new inspection force to replace the one expelled from Iraq in 1998. Saddam Hussein's friends have privately nixed a series of suggested candidates and are now publicly objecting to Rolf Ekeus, a Swedish arms control expert who headed the Iraq inspections team from 1991 to 1997. Mr. Ekeus knows more about monitoring Iraq than anybody else and has a reputation for fairness. There are no good reasons for opposing him. Indeed, the Russians, French and Chinese have all praised Mr. Ekeus in the past for his leadership of earlier inspection efforts.

Now, however, all three governments object that under his watch U.N. inspections were used as a cover for American spying. That is an unproven claim: The CIA used the inspections system as a cover under Mr. Ekeus's successor, Richard Butler; but Mr. Ekeus himself was careful not to compromise the United Nations' position. The obstructionists also say that they want an inspector who is acceptable to Iraq. But the only inspector whom the Iraqis will welcome actively is an ineffectual one.

It is not too late for the obstructionists to relent or to consent to another worthy chief inspector. If they persist, they will be rendering the United Nations helpless--and on an issue for which the United Nations formally has assumed responsibility. Last month a Security Council resolution mandated inspections in Iraq; Russia, France and China all opted not to veto it. Having accepted the ends, these countries are unwilling to permit the means. Nothing could be more damaging to the United Nations' credibility.

All three governments habitually rail against American unilateralism, and Russia and China were furiously critical of NATO's intervention in Kosovo, which was carried out without the legal cover of a U.N. mandate. But by crippling the United Nations, these three governments damage the likeliest multilateralist alternative to the American assertiveness they decry.