With the prospects of unilateral American military action against Iraq growing, Saddam Hussein may be making a tactical error in pushing the confrontation this far.
Since igniting the showdown two weeks ago over United Nation's weapons inspections, the Iraqi dictator has scored major political points by exploiting differences between the US and its 1991 Gulf War allies, almost all of whom oppose the use of force to resolve the crisis.
To many analysts, however, Saddam's success in driving a wedge between the US and its allies does not fully justify his decision to risk what would most likely be massive and costly US strikes and the indefinite extension of UN sanctions that have devastated his economy.
"It's a big puzzle," says W. Seth Carus, an analyst at the Institute for National Strategic Studies, a Pentagon think tank. "The cost to Iraq ... is almost unaccountable. In terms of direct oil revenue losses, you are talking about surrendering $100 million plus."
If Saddam had cooperated with the UN and turned over suspected stocks of biological and chemical weapons, analysts say, he could have won an end to the sanctions. With the massive infusion of new resources, Iraq could have quietly rebuilt its illegal weapons program.
Now, however, he's confronting once again the world's mightiest military power.
The likelihood of unilateral American military action grew over the weekend with the apparent failure of a US diplomatic drive to drum up international support for using force to compel Saddam to rescind an Oct. 29 order to expel Americans working on UN weapons inspections teams. All six Americans and 68 other UN inspectors left Iraq last week.
Even Kuwait, the tiny Gulf kingdom liberated from Iraqi occupation by the US-led coalition in 1991, joined France, Russia, China, and a majority of Arab states in rejecting a military resolution. "We do not support any military action against Iraq," Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah said in Cairo on Sunday after meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
With the diplomatic track looking increasingly bleak, President Clinton is continuing a buildup of US forces in the region. A second aircraft carrier task force is steaming to the Gulf and additional war jets have been deployed to a base in Turkey. Britain, the only major power aligned with Washington, is sending an aircraft carrier to the Mediterranean.
US and UN officials believe that Saddam banned American arms inspectors to disrupt the UN operation after it got too close to uncovering either remnants of his pre-Gulf War secret weapons programs or new efforts to develop nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.
But they are hard pressed to understand why he has gone to such lengths to obstruct the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) and risk a military showdown with the US.
Had Saddam cooperated with UNSCOM, he would have encouraged France, Russia, China and other states eager to sign oil deals with him to press for an end to the UN sanctions. Once the sanctions were lifted, Iraqi scientists would have new resources with which to reconstitute their clandestine biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons development efforts, experts say.
"What they should have done is cooperate with us," concedes a UN official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "They could have had sanctions lifted and been back in business pretty quickly."
US and UN officials suspect that Iraq is hiding large stocks of deadly biological agents, including anthrax and other toxins, and components for manufacturing tons of chemical weapons, such as VX, a tiny amount of which is enough to kill. They also suspect Iraq of concealing missile warheads capable of delivering the weapons.
Some experts believe Saddam's motives for concealing his lethal armory are rooted in longstanding fears of neighboring Iran, his foe in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War and Iraq's main rival for regional dominance.
With the UN sanctions denying him the oil revenues to rebuild his conventional forces, still badly hobbled by the beating they took in the Gulf War, the Iraqi leader has no choice but to preserve his illegal weapons programs to deter Iranian aggression, they say.
"Obviously this has a lot to do with regional security and ... Iran," says the UN official. "The Iraqis see themselves as the door between the Arabs and the Persians."
Other analysts, while acknowledging that a border dispute and other problems keep tensions high between Iraq and Iran, discount any near-term possibility of the two going back to war. They say that despite Iraq's problems in rearming its conventional military, it is capable of defeating any incursion by its traditional rival.
Instead, these experts believe Saddam remains determined to be a decisive power in the Gulf region, the source of 62 percent of the world's oil supplies. Maintaining stocks of chemical and biological weapons - or just the capabilities of manufacturing them - gives him enormous leverage over his smaller neighbors, they say.
Furthermore, Saddam can still be an important player among the opponents of the US-sponsored Middle East peace process because of the threat his illicit weapons represent to Israel, they explain. Then, there is another school of thought.
Says Dr. Carus: "I think this has a lot to do with the psychology of Saddam. This is a power game to him. Surrendering what he considers key assets to the international community would be a sign of impotence and surrender."