A human tragedy of monumental proportions is developing in Iraq as Saddam Hussein's government carries out what amounts to genocide against the Kurdish people who rose in rebellion after Iraq's defeat in the Persian Gulf war.

Some 2 million to 3 million Kurds - bombarded by artillery and strafed by helicopter gunships - have fled the cities and into snow-capped mountains in northern Iraq where many are dying of wounds, hunger and exposure.While this is happening, the world, including the United States, with troops not far from the fighting, stands and watches. All the spectators claim a policy of non-interference. Tens of thousands of Kurdish refugees are being turned away by Iran at the border.

In a heart-breaking story on roads some 300 miles north of Baghdad, refugees pleaded with foreign journalists. "We need help. The helicopters are killing us. We have no food. We will die. Why is the United Nations doing nothing to help us?"

Why indeed?

Since Washington had essentially urged the people of Iraq to topple Saddam, it is hard to justify looking the other way when an uprising occurs and is ruthlessly crushed and whole civilian populations are threatened with extermination. Atrocities are widely reported.

Yet the Bush administration has turned down rebel pleas for military or even humanitarian aid. As columnist John Hall reports elsewhere on this page, the president feels that the United States cannot do more than outlined in the U.N. resolutions for the war, namely throw Saddam out of Kuwait.

That being the case, why doesn't the U.N. act? The French have tried to urge some world response to the suffering.

A draft Security Council resolution setting the terms for a permanent cease-fire in the Persian Gulf does not even mention the slaughter going on inside Iraq. It calls for dismantling of chemical and biological weapons and missile systems, removal of all nuclear material, a continuing arms embargo, a continuing trade ban, reparations for damage, and a U.N. demilitarized buffer zone between Iraq and Kuwait.

All of these steps are necessary to eliminate Saddam's ability to threaten his neighbors and ensure peace between Iraq and other nations in the Persian Gulf. But what about the turmoil inside Iraq and the possible genocide of the Kurdish people? That is certainly a legitimate U.N. concern.

The U.N. is not going to act unless somebody steps forward and takes the lead. That is exactly what Bush did in response to the Iraq invasion of Kuwait. Sadly, the silence out of Washington now is deafening.

In rallying the world against Saddam after the occupation of Kuwait, the United States and the United Nations occupied positions of considerable political and moral authority.

As French officials warn, if the U.N. fails to act now, it risks losing the moral high ground that was gained by pushing Iraq out of Kuwait.