Iraq will submit to the United Nations this weekend a required full declaration of its prohibited weapons and dual-use programs, a report that is expected to span thousands of pages in English and Arabic.
But with this inventory, Iraq walks a difficult line between war and peace, between the US and the UN, and perhaps between truth and fiction.
"This is Saddam Hussein's last chance to come clean," says David Albright, who heads the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington. If Iraq admits to the UN that it still has weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs, rallying international support to disarm Saddam Hussein through force becomes more difficult. "No one is going to bomb him, because he finally tells the truth [about having such weapons programs]. But does he believe that?"
Iraqi officials continue to deny having any WMD programs. But the US and Britain say their intelligence shows Baghdad is still developing those weapons.
"If Iraq sticks to their story that they have no WMD, I would interpret that they feel that war is inevitable - and so why give away anything?" says Mr. Albright, who spent five years working closely with Iraq inspectors for the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency.
During the 1990s, Iraq submitted eight flawed "full, final, and complete" disclosures to the UN, and sought to hide the extent of Iraq's advanced nuclear, chemical, biological, and ballistic-missile programs.
Some analysts argue that even if all that remains is a fraction of Iraq's original arsenal from before the 1991 Gulf War - up to 95 percent was destroyed by the UN in the 1990s, according to one count - what is left could still be dangerous.
"We expect this declaration to account for this stuff, at least," says Mark Sedwill, a British government Middle East spokesman, who was attached to a 1997 UNSCOM team tasked with unraveling Iraq's concealment mechanism. "The declaration is going to be difficult to get right, since they say they have nothing. Admitting they were lying will actually be compliance."
The mountain of data sent to the UN this weekend is supposed to account for everything from missing ingredients for making weapons to lists of Iraqi plastics factories and distillery equipment that can also be used for brewing biological and chemical toxins. It will be Iraq's most explicit signal of its willingness to comply - or reject - the UN Security Council resolutions.
Already, different interpretations of Iraq's documents are emerging about what will constitute "compliance" or a "violation" of UN requirements, and whether this will alter the course of the US-led showdown.
"Clearly the [Bush] administration doesn't want any good news from Baghdad," says Judith Kipper, a senior Middle East specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "The president and vice president have already set up very low expectations - in fact, expectations of noncompliance.
"[UN Secretary General] Kofi Annan is saying one day that the Iraqis are complying, that everything is OK, it's working so far," Ms. Kipper says. "At the same time, the president is saying it's not good enough, they're cheating."
Whether or not the US rejects the declaration, it may have difficulty toppling the Iraqi ruler on its own: Going through the UN "creates a certain track, which you can't walk away from," Albright says. "If Iraq complies, the US can't say, 'We were tricked, we're now going to invade.'"
While experts say it will take time for UN inspection chiefs to scrutinize the new declaration, its voluminous contents will provide a framework for future inspections - and verification that WMD efforts are shut down.
Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, in his first comment since UN teams began their work after a four-year hiatus, declared yesterday that Iraqis "do not like the colors falling between white and black," and therefore "like to deal with their enemies standing in one trench," according to an official translation of his remarks.
While decrying "weakness, surrender, or cowardice," however, he told members of the Iraqi leadership that, "to keep our people out of harm's way," Iraq would give the UN a "proper chance to resist, with tangible evidence, the American allegations that Iraq produced WMD during the period of the inspectors' absence."
US and British officials are almost certain to reject the Iraqi declaration, experts say, regardless of its contents. France and Russia - two other permanent members of the UN Security Council - are likely to hail whatever documents are produced as a step toward full compliance.
Caught in the middle are the inspectors. "Iraq wants us to be very light. The US wants us to be extremely severe," said Dimitri Perricos, head of the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspections Commission (UNMOVIC), late Wednesday. "We think what we are doing is the proper job, and getting good results."
Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan late on Wednesday accused the UN of sending spies for inspections with a mission to make a case for war. "The inspectors have come to provide better circumstances and more precise information for a coming aggression," Mr. Ramadan told a visiting Arab delegation, noting that information gathered by UN inspectors in the late 1990s helped map out the target set for US air strikes during Operation Desert Fox in December 1998.
"The [UN] resolution is loaded with land mines; one bigger than the other, and the aim is that one of those would explode," Ramadan said.
IN THE face of US and Iraqi complaints, Mr. Perricos says that no nation is "serving up" its intelligence so that inspectors can reveal any illicit WMD activity. "What we are getting [in intelligence], and what President Bush is getting, is different," Perricos says. "The people who sent us here are the UN and international community. We are not serving the US. We are not serving the UK."
A baseline for Iraq's declaration will be an accounting of material that inspectors from the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) could not find until they departed in 1998, which includes hundreds of tons of precursor chemicals for VX nerve agent, certain quantities of other lethal agents and biological material, and possibly a dozen modified Scud missiles. "There will be huge information containing new sites and new activity during their absence, but they are not prohibited activities," said Hassam Mohamad Amin, of the Iraqi Monitoring Directorate on Wednesday. He added that there would be no new material about WMD programs.
The rhetoric is heating up, even though Iraq insists that it will comply, to avoid war. "It's classic Iraqi behavior: They are smart, they can be very charming and very helpful," says Kipper of the CSIS. "But this regime is extremely gifted at concealment. It's a huge country, and who knows what is buried in the middle of the desert?"
That still doesn't spell inevitable war. "In the end, the president has the awesome burden of deciding to send American boys and girls potentially to their death in the Iraqi desert," Kipper says. "Can he do that, if there is a UN process; if there is no immediate threat or provocation?"