To seasoned Iraq watchers, the lightning-quick buildup to a new crisis between Baghdad and the United Nations was only a matter of time.
Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein blinked first during a similar standoff last month over UN weapons inspectors, averting American-British airstrikes by a matter of minutes. But Iraq also promised then to provide "unconditional and unrestricted" access. Washington made clear that the slightest violation would be met with force, and without warning. (See story about estimates on potential casualties, page 2.)
The stage was set this time by a crucial report by Richard Butler, the UN's chief weapons inspector, who on Tuesday told the Security Council that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein "has not kept to that commitment. Indeed, far from allowing unconditional and unrestricted access, the report does detail new restrictions that he has invented."
Several key inspections had been blocked, Mr. Butler said, concluding that "no progress was ... made in either the fields of disarmament or in accounting for its prohibited weapons programs."
This latest crisis has erupted unlike any of the others that have marked the long-standing conflict between the United States and Iraq since the 1991 Gulf War. So far this buildup has been conducted with unprecedented speed.
Iraqi troops invaded Kuwait in August 1990, and a US-led military alliance forced a withdrawal. But as part of the cease-fire terms, Iraq agreed to disarm itself of all weapons of mass destruction, and to allow the UN to verify the destruction of all nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons programs and the missiles to deliver them. Sanctions and an oil embargo were also imposed.
Iraq's efforts to conceal the full extent of its programs have caused periodic crises that have caused Washington to force compliance with threats of force.
In late 1997, access to sensitive "presidential sites" was denied. Early this year, Baghdad expelled American weapons inspectors who they branded "spies." And in February a lengthy US military buildup was halted at the 11th hour by the personal intervention of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
In August, Iraq again curtailed inspections, and by Oct. 31 ended all cooperation. That crisis came to head on Nov. 14, when Iraq backed down just moments before American missiles were to be launched.
Iraq's weapons-making capability
Western intelligence agencies believe that Iraq still harbors the capability to make and field weapons of mass destruction. But analysts are torn about the long-term effect of a military strike, which they say would almost certainly mean an end to any prospect of future weapons monitoring in Iraq.
This time, weapons inspectors were prevented from visiting three "sensitive" sites, Butler reported, including the headquarters of the ruling Baath Party and a military base run by an Iranian opposition group, the Mujahideen al-Khalq. Only one of 12 requested weapons-related documents had been turned over.
Butler says that one site had been cleared of relevant materials, and that another "had been prepared to avoid any disclosure of relevant materials and the [UN] team assessed Iraq had expected their arrival."
Iraq had also "initiated new forms of restrictions upon the [weapons inspectors'] work," he says. "It remains the commission's strong view that ... relevant documentation must exist in Iraq and that provision of such documentation is the best hope for revealing the full picture" of Iraq's weapons programs.
The Security Council is, in theory, to consider Butler's report and decide whether to begin a comprehensive review of UN relations with Iraq that Iraqi officials had hoped might be a first step to lifting UN sanctions.
Iraq's Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz dismissed the UN report as "intended to trigger an American and British military strike on Iraq," in remarks quoted by the Iraqi News Agency. "This report is full of lies and it falsifies realities."
By contrast, a separate report by the International Atomic Energy Agency, which is responsible for verifying the end of Iraq's nuclear programs, said that Iraq provided "the necessary level of cooperation" to work "efficiently and effectively."
US forces already on alert in the Persian Gulf - with more than 300 cruise missiles, some 210 combat aircraft, stealth fighters in Kuwait, long-range bombers on the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia, and more than 20,000 troops - are capable of launching a serious campaign with little notice.
State Department spokesman James Foley made clear that Washington did not need a green light: "The US has stated before that we believe we have all the authority we need under relevant Security Council resolutions to act. All options remain on the table."
As in previous confrontations, Britain is lending its political support - and some military assets - to a possible attack. "We said last time we would not be giving formal warnings to Saddam Hussein," British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook said in an interview yesterday with the BBC.
"I'm not now going to give him any warning of what we might do," he said.
The game plan is believed to be little changed from November, or from the previous crisis last February. Pentagon planners said then that any strike - with the stated aim of forcing Iraq to comply with inspections - would rival the intensity of the 1991 Gulf War air campaign.
The timing of airstrikes against Iraq may be a function of the very narrow window that opened when President Clinton left the Mideast on Tuesday, and before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan begins this weekend.
Strikes before or after those dates could have angered Mr. Clinton's Israeli and Palestinian hosts. Or, launching an attack on a Muslim country during a sacred time of year could jeopardize crucial support among Arab allies.
Any military action also comes as the US and United Kingdom have begun speaking more openly than ever of toppling Saddam and encouraging a "democratic" alternative from among a plethora of opposition groups.
And few observers forget to factor in that Clinton faces an imminent impeachment vote in the US House of Representatives.