IRAQ'S latest decision to blink in the face of increased military rumblings from Washington and steady insistence by the United Nations that its Gulf war cease-fire terms must be met has reduced tension but not necessarily skepticism.
Reports due later this week from the UN missile inspection team that arrived in Baghdad over the weekend may well determine what comes next.
Late last week Iraqi officials finally agreed to destroy, under UN supervision, ballistic missile equipment at four sites. Only one week before, Iraq's deputy prime minister, Tariq Aziz, had argued emotionally before the UN Security Council that the world body's tough terms were destroying Iraq's industrial base and that the missile equipment should be converted to civilian use.
In the latest development, spelled out in a letter to UN officials, Iraq also admitted to having more missiles than it had previously disclosed, though it claimed to have destroyed most of them last summer. The Iraqis also said they had a large number of chemical warheads and that they would supply a complete rundown of all arms programs to the UN after the holy days of Ramadan end in April.
Rolf Ekeus, the Swede who heads the UN special commission to oversee the destruction of Iraq's most dangerous weapons, called the developments a sign of a "new attitude" in Baghdad and "the first good news" he has reported since taking up his job last year. "This is a very important statement," he insisted.
In a separate move, Iraq has also agreed to resume talks with the UN in Vienna on a potential $1.6 billion oil sale, an exception to the current economic sanctions. However, Iraq has been resisting UN terms as an invasion of its sovereignty. The terms are that two-thirds of the income be spent for humanitarian needs and distributed by the UN and that the rest go for reparations and UN expenses.
Most of Iraq's nuclear equipment has already been destroyed. The International Atomic Energy Agency, charged with that job, is expected to decide soon how much of the weapons plant at Al Atheer to destroy and how to do it.
The UN missile inspection team in Iraq this week will try to verify the most recent numbers and claims of destruction made by Baghdad as well as to craft a procedure by which Iraq will destroy its remaining missile equipment.
The reaction of the United States to Iraq's latest promises has been cautious. They mark a "good step forward" if Baghdad follows through, a US official says, "but the proof of the pudding is in the eating."
The Bush administration last week flexed its military muscle in the direction of Iraq through air carrier exercises in the Gulf and by disclosing that the Pentagon has contingency plans for a military strike on Iraqi weapons sites. Some UN diplomats were concerned that the US might be moving too far ahead of its UN allies. Both Egypt and Syria, for instance, have made it known that they oppose any new military action.
"There's a lot of signaling going back and forth between Baghdad and Washington and the UN, and it's been a bit confusing," observes Edward Luck, president of the United Nations Association of the USA. "Either the US is part of the multilateral decisionmaking on this or it's not - you can't just be a partner to the UN when it's convenient.
"If you push too hard on the question of using force, you might risk losing some of your support for enforcing sanctions and the disarmament of Iraq," Mr. Luck says. "I don't think the US wants to do that."
Enid Schoettle, a specialist on security issues and international law with the Council on Foreign Relations, argues that military threats can have a certain inherent value of their own.
"I do think one can behave as if one were getting ready for a military engagement, acting as a military agent of the UN," she says, "without actually doing anything and have that [behavior] be useful."
Luck agrees that such threats can be effective, even in encouraging Security Council members to take other interim steps short of military action. He suggests that even though the nation is in the midst of the "silly season" of presidential campaigning, US officials may have little or no desire to follow through on their military threats.
"I think they're not sure that politically it's so desirable either with the American public or internationally or so certain that it's going to work," he says.
Luck argues that repeated air strikes, for instance, did not destroy all of Iraq's military potential during the war and are no substitute for on-site inspection.
"As long as these people are in power in Baghdad, they're going to want to acquire weapons of mass destruction," he says. "It's going to require having a UN presence there for a long, long time."