Since the end of the 1991 Gulf War, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein has repeatedly sought to break out of his international isolation by exploiting differences within the United States-led coalition that defeated him.
His latest bid at brinkmanship - a ban on the inclusion of Americans on United Nations weapons inspection teams and an ultimatum that they leave Iraq by tomorrow - may be his most serious challenge yet.
But this is more than an attempt to splinter the international community, say UN officials and independent experts. The outcome of the crisis, they say, could determine whether Saddam not only preserves the remnants of his chemical-, biological-, and nuclear-weapons programs, but moves ahead with the development of new ones that could be far more deadly.
Saddam's goal "has been to preserve the kinds of military and strategic capabilities he had after the Gulf War. He has given weapons of mass destruction the single highest priority of the state," says Anthony Cordesman, an expert on Iraq at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
The confrontation escalated yesterday after Iraq told a UN missile inspections team that it could not work because it included an American, one of seven currently
in Baghdad. The team and two other UN monitoring groups were recalled from the field.
The crisis presents President Clinton with yet another test of his policy of preventing Saddam from rebuilding his military capabilities and threatening anew oil flows from the Gulf, the world's largest source of petroleum.
The Clinton administration, backed by Britain, has refused to exclude the use of force to compel Saddam to retract his ban on American weapons inspectors. But while condemning the ban, France, Russia and China - the other three permanent members of the UN Security Council - are insisting on a diplomatic resolution in an apparent effort to secure lucrative trade deals with oil- and gas-rich Iraq once UN economic sanctions are lifted. Arab states are also advocating negotiations.
In such an atmosphere, US military action would widen the rift with the French, Russians, and Chinese, bring global opprobrium, and fuel already high anti-US sentiment in the Arab world. Saddam, in turn, would be encouraged to take even more provocative steps. For now, the White House is accepting the diplomatic track, agreeing to the dispatch of a UN delegation to Baghdad.
But the administration also knows it cannot appear weak. Faced with congressional demands for firmness, the White House insists there should be no negotiations between the UN delegation and Iraq. The group's sole purpose, US officials say, is reminding Saddam that under the Gulf War cease-fire agreement, he must cooperate unconditionally in the destruction of illegal weapons or UN sanctions will remain in place.
"The dialogue should consist of spelling out the ways in which he will comply with the international community," asserts White House spokesman Mike McCurry.
The ban on American inspectors is the most recent of a series of impediments raised by Iraq to preserve whatever remains of its illegal weapons capabilities. UN officials say Saddam ordered the ban because the UN searches were making progress.
"I think we're getting hotter and maybe that is part of the reason they took this decision," says Richard Butler, the Australian chief of the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM), which oversees the inspections.
In seeking out banned Iraqi weapons, UNSCOM relies heavily on the US government intelligence provided to its American members to stage unannounced "challenge" inspections. If Americans are barred from UNSCOM, experts say, the administration would no longer share such intelligence.
"If the US inspectors cannot lead the rapid challenge inspections ... Iraq can move equipment and documents so quickly that there would be no way to make challenge inspections," says Mr. Cordesman.
The inability of UNSCOM to stage snap inspections would not only hurt its ability to uncover what is left of Saddam's pre-Gulf War development of weapons of mass destruction, but also hinder its capacity to deter new programs, officials say.
"The presence of the monitors and inspection regimes have been a significant deterrent to the development of any programs and have given the international community some reassurance that he [Saddam] is not in a position to reconstitute ... weapons of mass destruction," says Mr. McCurry.
Some experts, however, say there are strong suspicions that Saddam has been pursuing - on scales too small to detect - new weapons programs far more dangerous than those he was conducting before the Gulf War.
They are believed to include developing a capability of rapidly assembling a nuclear warhead once weapons-grade plutonium or uranium can be secured. The Iraqis are also suspected of pursuing "dry" biological warfare agents that have much longer shelf lives than their prewar "wet" stocks as well as advanced chemical weapons and improved missiles.
"What you have is a country committing certainly hundreds of millions of dollars to a clandestine 'breakout' program," says Cordesman. "We know from the things that they have tried smuggling that these are not theoretical possibilities."
Denied the oil revenues needed to rebuild his conventional military into the region's most powerful force, developing weapons on mass destruction would restore to Saddam the ability to reimpose his sway over the Gulf.
In addition to threatening pro-Western Arab states, Iraq could also use such weapons to target the 20,000-strong American forces posted in the region to ensure the unhindered flow of oil.