President Bush has not wavered in his stated goal of unseating the Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, but the US military faces diplomatic and practical obstacles on its path to Baghdad.
Mr. Bush set forth his resolve in a speech Saturday to West Point graduates, stating that in the post-9/11 world, the US military must be prepared to launch preemptive strikes, to "confront the worst threats before they emerge."
He didn't mention Iraq by name, but clearly implied it would fall among the potential targets. Bush talked of an unprecedented threat of chemical, biological, or nuclear attack from "terrorists and tyrants."
Still, recent signs suggest that the debate that has raged in Washington since Sept. 11 over whether to take military action against Iraq is far from over.
A key factor complicating any decision to move forward with a military operation is Iraq's new willingness to discuss a return of UN weapons inspectors absent since 1998. Advocates of using force see this as a ploy by Hussein.
But US allies in Europe are so far reluctant to endorse the military option, with some favoring the pursuit of alternatives to contain Hussein, such as arms inspections.
Reservations over using military force to unseat Hussein are also surfacing in the American public and among members of Congress and the US armed services. Moreover, potential allies in the Mideast are putting priority on resolving the Israeli-Palestinian crisis.
"The outcome of US policy is not predetermined," says Kenneth Katzman, an Iraq specialist at the Congressional Research Service who advises members of Congress. "It will depend on whether Iraq lets the inspectors in and its degree of cooperation."
Talks between UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Iraq's Foreign Minister Naji Sabri over renewing inspections are planned for July. This will be the third stage in negotiations that resumed in March for the first time since 1998, when inspectors left after years of obstruction by Iraq.
US officials and experts are divided over whether Iraq will now cooperate with inspectors sufficiently to ensure that Iraq will not develop chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. Iraq denies it is pursuing such weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Yet US intelligence as well as the accounts of Iraqi defectors suggest that the programs are alive and well, arms experts say.
One view, expressed emphatically by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other senior Pentagon officials, is that Hussein is unlikely to abandon the pursuit of WMD. "It would have to be an enormously intrusive inspection regime for ... any reasonable person to have confidence that it could in fact find, locate, and identify the government of Iraq's very aggressive weapons of mass destruction program," Mr. Rumsfeld said in April.
He said past inspectors were "not able to find much, other than what defectors mentioned and cued them to." He contends, moreover, that Iraq has become "vastly more skillful" at hiding WMD.
Some former UN weapons inspectors agree. "We found that even with the aggressive and creative inspections we conducted ... we could not achieve the full objective that was laid out for us," says Charles Duelfer, who was deputy executive chairman of the UN Special Commission on Iraq (UNSCOM) from 1993 until its termination in 2000. "We could not account for all the Iraqi programs, nor could we monitor with high confidence that Iraq was not reconstituting these programs."
UNSCOM was set up to oversee the dismantling of Iraq's existing WMD and related programs after the 1991 Gulf War, as a precondition for lifting sanctions.
Mr. Duelfer recalled instances in the 1990s when UNSCOM teams would depart in their SUVs from Baghdad's Canal Hotel on "no notice" inspections and get lost. Then, their Iraqi minders who weren't supposed to know their surprise destination would give them directions. Iraqi intelligence "had no higher priority" than to keep tabs on the inspectors, he concludes.
Given that Iraq considers WMD vital to its security, new inspections are "doomed from the start," he says.
Yet others, including some US officials and experts as well as European allies and UN Security Council members, believe that rigorous inspections could help restrain Iraq, thus reducing the need for a US military incursion.
In recent talks with Bush, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder called for pressuring Iraq to accept new inspections, while downplaying the possibility of military action, saying "there are no concrete military plans to attack Iraq."
British Prime Minister Tony Blair suggested in May that if Iraq allowed inspectors back in "unconditionally," it could change his view on the need to unseat Hussein. But he doubted Baghdad would cooperate fully.
The State Department has stressed that US policy remains to support efforts to require Iraq to accept full access to suspected weapons sites under the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission, which took over from UNSCOM in 1999.
So far, UN talks with Iraq on inspections remain inconclusive.
Several experts agree, however, that the threat of US military action has forced Hussein to seriously consider the idea, which in turn complicates the prospects for an American-led assault.
"It seems they only act if they are afraid the US is going to hit them," says Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Much will depend on the timing of any agreement by Baghdad to admit inspectors as well as the degree of Iraqi compliance.
"If Saddam moves early on to accept inspections before the US has deployed forces, the US would have to wait for this to play out," contends Gary Samore, a former senior US nonproliferation official now at the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London.