With President Bush relentlessly pushing for regime change in Iraq, a sense of the inevitability of a US attack is taking hold in Baghdad.
"They believe the US is committed to [attacking Iraq] by hook or by crook, and [weapons] inspectors are somewhat of a side issue," says Toby Dodge, an Iraq expert at the University of Warwick in Britain, who met with senior Iraqi officials in Baghdad earlier this month.
In the past, the US has held out the possibility that decade-old sanctions on Iraq could be lifted, if Iraq leader Saddam Hussein complied fully with weapons inspections.
Buckling to pressure from the US, UN, and Arab nations, Iraq has offered to permit UN weapons inspectors to return, promising "unfettered" access to any site. But US officials, citing past disputes over "sovereign" and other sensitive sites, dismissed the offer a signal that Washington's patience with the traditional "carrot-and-stick" approach to dealing with Iraq has finally run out.
"If [chief UN weapons inspector] Hans Blix got there in 10 days, looked around unimpeded, found all the unaccounted-for tons of chemical and biological agents and their precursors, and left to cheers, I can't believe that would stop the Americans," Mr. Dodge says.
Secretary of State Colin Powell on Wednesday told Reuters news agency: "The US continues to believe that the best way to disarm Iraq is through regime change."
Analysts are wondering why Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, with few incentives and even fewer allies, continues to engage with the UN and how he might try to exploit deep rifts in the international community over military strikes.
Iraq is working hard to burnish its image. Baghdad officials have been taking journalists on tours of suspected weapons production sites to prove Iraq's innocence. But while UN Security Council resolutions link Iraq's compliance to a lifting of sanctions, Baghdad points to statements by US officials indicating that toppling Mr. Hussein has long been their real priority.
President Clinton, for one, stated in late 1997 that "sanctions will be there until the end of time, or as long as he [Hussein] lasts." Under the Bush administration, the word "sanctions" is almost never mentioned, except in building a case for how they failed to keep Iraq from rearming.
The White House has been gathering information that it says proves that Iraq is actively pursuing biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons of mass destruction and that this presents an immediate danger.
To some, the hardened US line says that no matter what Iraq does, the US has decided its course of action.
"The US thinks the world is suffering from political amnesia, but people [see that this] is yet again an example of a goalpost change," says Hans von Sponeck, the German former head of UN humanitarian efforts in Baghdad, who is a critic of the heavy impact of sanctions on Iraqi civilians.
Full cooperation with the UN is key, he says. "The incentive lies in avoiding giving the Americans any pretext whatsoever." Ideas floating around European Union circles to help avoid war include sending a group of "wise men and women" to Iraq, Mr. von Sponeck says, "to make sure there isn't a misuse of this return [of inspectors] on the part of the Americans, who will find an excuse to argue for noncooperation, when there is cooperation."
Iraq says that one reason it has been reluctant to readmit inspectors who were withdrawn by the UN in 1998, just hours before the US launched a four-day bombing campaign called Operation Desert Fox is that the original UN Special Commission was found to be feeding intelligence back to home countries. The CIA infiltrated the commission's communications systems, without informing the UN. The data gleaned from UN inspections was used in target decisions by US military planners for Desert Fox.
Critics of the current US-led campaign to topple Hussein say that some information released by the US and Britain as evidence that Iraq still pursues weapons of mass destruction is inaccurate. In mid-July, von Sponeck visited two sites cited in an Iraq dossier released by British Prime Minister Tony Blair earlier this week: a veterinary vaccine institute at al-Dawrah, and a castor oil production plant at Fallujah. Suspected of producing biological agents, they were targeted in 1998 US and British air attacks.
Mr. Blair's dossier says that the castor oil plant "has been rebuilt." But von Sponeck says that, while Iraq may have been rebuilding other facilities he didn't visit, in these two cases, "these facilities are simply gone." He says Iraq is ready to cooperate because it "knows this is their last chance to avert a high-tech attack in which they have absolutely no chance to emerge as survivors."
But even such a decision by Iraq may not be enough to prevent a crisis developing over weapons inspectors, analysts say.
"The danger is that the guard at the front of the presidential palaces will not be able to get the order to throw the gate open quick enough, or have the autonomy and courage to do it," says Dodge. "In the end, this will snowball into a [confrontation] that could trigger war.