For hours, the thousands of Iraqi troops paraded in Baghdad, past a reviewing stand where Saddam Hussein or at least his body double presided. But amid all the menacing pomp was a tiny clue to the regime's vulnerability.
"The troops were all very neat, with Saddam looking at them," recalls Iraq analyst and journalist Patrick Cockburn. "But when I got close, I noticed they weren't wearing gloves they were white sports socks."
While Iraq's feeling of vulnerability has helped drive its pursuit of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), some analysts say that this very sense of weakness also means that a classic deterrence strategy the same threat of annihilation that kept the Soviet Union and United States from turning the cold war into a nuclear war can be applied to Iraq.
Calling Mr. Hussein "unstable," President Bush is making the case for US military strikes to rid Iraq of WMD and Hussein's leadership.
But some experts argue that Iraq has been, and can be deterred from launching WMD. "When [Hussein] did have lots of these weapons and missiles, he didn't dare use them, because it was always true that the counterattack would be greater than the attack," says Mr. Cockburn, coauthor of "Out of the Ashes: The Resurrection of Saddam Hussein."
A report released yesterday by the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) in London says that Iraq could build a nuclear bomb "within months," if it acquired fissile material from a foreign source. US officials disclosed over the weekend that the US had intercepted shipments of thousands of special aluminum tubes for Iraq that they say could be used to enrich uranium a sign that Iraq is stepping up its interest in nuclear weapons, while also demonstrating that it still lacks key elements. New information in the IISS report states that Iraq has mobile and possibly underground biological production units.
Spelling out the dilemma for US military planners, the report's author, John Chipman, said: "Wait, and the [Iraq] threat will grow. Strike, and the threat may be used."
But some observers say Saddam's own survival instincts will make him pliable if effective deterrence is used. "The first law of a dictator is: 'I want to stay in power,' and Saddam Hussein is deterrable on that basis," says a US government analyst in Washington with extensive intelligence experience. "We know he didn't use his anthrax, his sarin, his mustard or anything else during the previous Gulf War, because George Bush [senior] told him it would be met with American violence. George Bush [junior] has the same option, if he wants it."
Iraq can be deterred "if the Soviet Union, with several tons of smallpox ... and several kilo-megatons of nuclear explosives ... was a deterrable country," the government analyst says. "I think we can turn up the rhetoric on Saddam, and say that any Islamic terrorist detonation of a WMD device anywhere in the world will be attributable to Iraq and considered grounds for attack."
US administration officials argue that the risk of waiting is too great. "We don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud," US national security advisor Condoleezza Rice told CNN Sunday.
That view is shared by John Keegan, a preeminent British military historian, who recently wrote an opinion piece titled "If Churchill were alive today, he would strike at Saddam," in the London Daily Telegraph. "When it is not a question of if Saddam acquires nuclear weapons, the moment when he could be crushed without risk ... will be gone," Mr. Keegan wrote. "At the moment Saddam could be toppled quickly, cheaply and without difficulty. The moment will not last."
Some experts say that view underestimates the risks and precedent that would be created by the US moving to oust the Iraqi leader.
Even today, Hussein "realizes if he used [WMD] in an unprovoked manner or even if he were provoked it would lead to his destruction," says Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association in Washington. "If the US attacks, these fundamental assumptions have to be thrown out the window, because ... Saddam Hussein may not have anything to lose by using these weapons."
"The desperation which might well set in, once military action does take place, will put Saddam Hussein under such pressure that ... makes the use of chemical and biological weapons more likely," says Daniel Neep, Mideast program director at the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based think tank with close ties to the British defense ministry.
A preemptive strike could also set an example that might be borrowed in other disputes around the world, such as between India and Pakistan, China and Taiwan or between Israel and its Arab enemies, analysts worry.
Past preemptive strikes have not always been as effective as they are sometimes remembered, observers say. While it is commonly held that the Israeli destruction of Iraq's Osirak nuclear power reactor in 1981 set back Iraq's program by several years, arms control expert Kimball says that is a "myth," because Iraq simply adjusted its efforts, shifting from pursuing plutonium separation techniques to simpler uranium enrichment plans.
"The issue needs to be considered here: What has changed in the last one or two years with respect to [Iraq's] programs?" Kimball asks. "And why is an effective inspection regime not going to be useful today, when the international community and the US thought it was useful a year ago?"
For renewed weapons inspections to work, analysts say, they must have full UN Security Council support, and be backed up by the threat of force a threat that pushes Iraq into a "deterrence" mode of thinking. Kimball adds that it is also "essential" that Iraq be assured that inspections are not "simply a prelude" to a US-led war and that full compliance would avert war.
"An inspections regime will not succeed if either the US creates an artificial deadline for their success," Kimball says, "or if Iraq creates an artificial deadline for their departure."