In offering to allow the return of international weapons inspectors, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein is doing what he can to regain some control over his fast-developing confrontation with the United States.
That Mr. Hussein felt it necessary to make such an offer is testimony that President George W. Bush, in the wake of last week's speech to the United Nations, was having some success winning over the world on the issue of Iraqi transgressions.
The pace of events is now unlikely to move entirely on Washington's schedule, as Hussein continues attempts to exploit differences of opinion between the US and other members of the UN Security Council.
It is also possible though barely so that Iraq's move presages a reinvigorated inspections regime and an end to the current crisis short of war.
"Clearly this is the beginning and not the end of a very long process," says Daryl G. Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association.
In many ways Hussein's latest move was entirely predictable. At least since Mr. Bush began publicly listing "regime change" as his administration's goal for Iraq, the US and Iraq have been engaged in something that might be judged open conflict without weapons.
The target of this wordfare: world opinion. Over the years one of Iraq's main diplomatic practices has been repeated attempts to bend enough to satisfy France, Russia, and other less-adamant members of the Security Council, while avoiding giving in entirely to Washington's demands.
A senior administration official on Tuesday labeled this approach "rope-a-dope," and called Iraq's weapons-inspections offer unacceptable.
First of all, Iraq's letter appears to be an offer to simply pick up where UN inspections left off before ending four years ago. That's not good enough, claims the senior official, because that old regime was flawed. Iraq was allowed to designate "presidential palaces" that were deemed off limits, for instance.
Second, Hussein has simply made a concession on process without addressing any point of substance, in the US view. Washington is pressing Iraq to comply with a whole series of UN resolutions, including ones calling on him to give up all weapons of mass destruction.
Given the way that administration officials have talked about Hussein in recent months, it seems that they consider the Iraqi leader himself a weapon of mass destruction, simply due to his past acts.
"The kind of inspections the US would want would virtually cede sovereignty to the UN," says Gary Schmitt, executive director of the Project for the New American Century.
But not all members of the Security Council feel that way. These policy differences were somewhat muted in the aftermath of Bush's strong UN speech, but they exist nonetheless. France and Russia, among others, don't necessarily see the removal of Hussein as a precondition to end the crisis.
Hussein's offer has thus cracked the somewhat misleading appearance of unity that had developed in recent days.
"The key now is whether the administration will insist on something more than the UN will accept," says Mr. Schmitt, who favors action against Iraq.
Timing could become crucial. The US is pushing for fast action in the UN Security Council, with a vote within two weeks on a tough new resolution ordering Iraq to comply with disarmament demands.
The US also wants any resolution to specify that member nations may take actions deemed necessary in the event that Iraq drags its feet. At all costs, American officials want to avoid the two-track approach suggested by France, in which the Security Council would engage in a second debate over the possible use of force, if Iraq is deemed as still not in compliance with Security Council demands.
One middle position discussed in Washington in recent days has been dubbed "coercive inspections." Proposed by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, it involves using armed might to enforce the right of inspectors to go anywhere, and do anything.
Thus upwards of 50,000 US troops might be used to poke and pry about the country, as opposed to marching on Baghdad to depose Hussein.
Pitched battles would take place only to the extent that Iraq might resist.
"The burden of choosing war is placed squarely on Saddam Hussein," said Jessica Mathews, Carnegie Endowment president, at a recent press briefing.
Other analysts point out that in offering to allow inspectors back into his country, Hussein was essentially agreeing to what US leaders as well as the UN had demanded of it prior to Sept. 11 of last year.
But clearly the terrorist attacks have changed the tolerance of the Bush administration, if not the US as a whole, for geopolitical risk.
Whether it has new evidence or not proving Iraq's intention of producing weapons of mass destruction almost seems beside the point to much of the administration.
"I think it would take almost an act of God to convince George Bush that [armed intervention] is the wrong thing to do," says Judith Yaphe, Iraq specialist at the National Defense University.