WASHINGTON — Saddam Hussein, at least to many in America, is a nefarious terrorist-harboring leader itching to use weapons of mass destruction against the US and Israel. Elsewhere in the world, including much of Europe, the Iraqi leader is viewed as an oil-rich dictator who has far more bluster than bite - and a knack for losing wars.
Which view is closer to the truth will help determine whether the United States - now contemplating the shape of Phase 2 of the war on terrorism - begins a major push to topple Mr. Hussein's regime.
At the least, Bush administration officials - from the president on down - are letting it be known that they've been thinking hard about Hussein since Sept. 11. That dark day made all realize the ruthlessness of unbridled terrorism - and that it's no longer enough simply to try to contain Hussein under the current UN sanctions, which are likely to be extended today. Just crossing one's fingers in the hope that the Iraqi leader won't use chemical or biological weapons has become an inadequate response, some argue.
Then, too, defense "hawks" within the administration - longtime advocates of ousting Hussein - are eager to use the momentum of the Afghanistan campaign to make a move to bring him down, perhaps in a sort of "Desert Storm 2."
"There's momentum building, and people are saying, 'Let's take on the entire beast' " of terrorism, including Iraq - "even if it means some extra expenditure of blood and treasure," says Michael Hudson, a professor of international relations at Georgetown University here.
The costs of confronting Saddam - either militarily or via diplomacy - could be huge for the US. In deciding whether a fight is worth the price, two things matter greatly: what weapons he has or could have in the near future, and under what circumstances he might use them.
Although United Nations inspectors have not been in Iraq for three years, some things are known about Saddam's weapons-building capability and history:
Iraq acknowledged in 1995 that it had produced 29,526 liters (about 6,500 gallons) of biological agents, including anthrax and botulism toxins. UN inspectors also discovered sprayer nozzles and several coffin-shaped boxes that can be used to "aerosolize," or "weaponize," anthrax and other bacteria. Iraq insisted, plausibly, that the equipment made pesticides. The inspectors also say Iraq's major biological-weapons facility, al Hakum, was destroyed during their watch.
A CIA report to Congress in early September disclosed that Iraq is working on an unmanned drone airplane, the L-29, that could deliver toxic weapons.
Iraq has used profits from oil sales to develop a vast equipment-buying network in "at least 20 different countries," according to a sensitive UN report published in July's Commentary magazine. On Iraq's shopping list were "full-sized production lines, industrial know-how, high-tech spare parts, and raw materials" - all aimed at building weapons of mass destruction, according to the report.
UN inspectors discovered that at one point Iraq had loaded biological and chemical weapons into missile warheads, although missiles it fired during the Gulf War did not contain such toxic weapons.
The consensus among experts is that Iraq doesn't have atomic weapons yet - but not for lack of trying. A 1996 memo discovered by UN weapons inspector Tim McCarthy denied any members of Iraq's nuclear-weapons team the ability to "to retire, move, transfer, change housing, etc." without official permission. It's evidence, Mr. McCarthy says, that Saddam intends to keep his atomic-weapons team together. German intelligence predicted in February that Iraq will have nuclear weapons within three years.
Two recent Iraqi defectors reportedly say they worked at a terrorist camp, which teaches assassination, hijacking, and kidnapping. They say non-Iraqi Arabs were frequently at the Baghdad camp. Iraqi intelligence officials are also reported to have met at least once with Sept. 11 hijacker Mohamed Atta.
Iraq has been trying to build weapons of mass destruction since the late 1970s. It had made great strides by 1991. But after the Gulf War, UN inspectors did slow it down.
"They have a relatively small existing capability and a very lethal 'breakout' capability" - meaning they can "really crank up production," says McCarthy, who works at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California. He says Iraq is now much more self-sufficient in producing such weapons than in the past.
All this raises the question of whether Iraq would use these weapons - and against whom. Saddam used chemical weapons in the Iran-Iraq war and against Iraqi Kurds in 1988. But he did not employ them in the Gulf War - perhaps because then-US Secretary of State James Baker warned of dire consequences.
Observers differ on what this history means today. Some say Iraq's decision not to use toxic weapons in the Gulf War proves Saddam is ultimately rational - and more concerned about his own survival than any crusade to wreak havoc on America or Israel. If true, then the threat of massive retaliation could continue to hold Saddam in check.
Supporters of this view include Iraqi neighbors such as Jordan, Syria, and even Russia, whose businesses have profited from selling goods and services to the embargo-encircled nation. This support is one of the great obstacles the US would face if it confronts Saddam.
"The international community essentially disagrees with the US on the nature of the threat," says Shibley Telhami, a professor at the University of Maryland in College Park.
In America, though, the view is increasingly that Iraq's history of using toxic weapons - and supporting terrorists - hints at a willingness to at least supply these weapons for terrorist strikes. This prospect is probably what worries US officials most.
It's perhaps why President Bush recently called Saddam "evil" - a word previously reserved for Osama bin Laden and other terrorists.
Yet to date, Bush has demanded only that Saddam allow UN weapons inspectors back into Iraq. This appears to leave open the possibilities for whether and how to confront Saddam - especially as Phase 1 of the war continues in Afghanistan.