Iraq's submission of a 12,000-page declaration of its weapons inventory presents the US with both opportunities and pitfalls as it tries to keep the pressure on Saddam Hussein to reveal everything he has and keep its own options for war open.
Tuesday US officials will start combing through the Iraqi report - a veritable Manhattan phone book in Arabic and English, clogged with information on every last chemical factory that churns out rubber sandals - to look for inconsistencies and omissions.
In theory, the Bush administration will compare what's in the declaration to its own purported "solid" intelligence of Iraq's possession of weapons of mass destruction. It could then point out these discrepancies to United Nations weapons inspectors, or even go for a dramatic return, evidence in hand, to the UN Security Council. To the extent the US finds clear and substantial contradictions, it would help buttress its case domestically and internationally for the necessity of "regime change" in Iraq.
In practice, however, the process will likely be more difficult than that. For one thing, no one knows just how much evidence the US has of Iraqi nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, though that can be a tactical advantage for Washington. Will there be a "smoking gun" omission, for instance?
If there isn't - and many experts don't think there is - the US would have to prove a pattern of deceit. That risks getting bogged down in minutiae. By pointing out every last petri dish and aluminum tube that could be used for military purposes, the Bush administration could get involved in a PR war with Mr. Hussein over details that detract from the overall threat the US believes he represents.
"This is a delicate moment for the Bush administration, and the way they play the coming days is going to set in motion what ends up happening on this whole Iraqi crisis for the months ahead," says Lawrence Korb, a Pentagon official in the Reagan years. "They've got themselves in this situation where, before going to war, they're going to have to let the inspections play out for a while."
With the UN program accelerating - the number of inspectors may jump from 50 now to about 100 by Christmas - the US could find the months ahead more a matter of needle-in-haystack searching and technical reporting rather than warfare, some experts say.
"It's very possible Iraq could be in 'material breach' of the UN resolution and it not lead to war but to more robust inspections," says Joseph Cirincione, director of the Non-Proliferation Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. The UN resolution passed Nov. 8 says that "false statements or omissions" in Iraq's declaration would constitute a "material breach" - diplomatic parlance for a justification for military action - if the problems were accompanied by a lack of Iraqi cooperation to address them.
Rather than the Iraqi declaration triggering a "showdown," Mr. Cirincione believes the information sets up a round of delicate technical, intelligence, and diplomatic work "that will take weeks to play out."
That may suit the White House fine, since all the elements of the American military buildup in the region are not in place for a possible war, military experts say. But what would constitute a clear defeat for the US would be Iraqi success at using its declaration to cover up its weapons programs. After having declared repeatedly it knows Iraq still has such programs, the US now must provide proof or risk losing the opportunity to finally deal with a regime most of the world agrees constitutes a serious threat.
"After what we've been saying, the rest of the world is going to ask, 'Where's the beef?' and will want something convincing," says Rear Admiral (Ret.) Stephen Baker of the Center for Defense Information here.
The US faces the difficult task of deciding how to reveal the information it has, information that experts in and out of government say comes at least in part from either defectors or is gleaned from sources inside Iraq.
The issue is causing a not-so-private tug-of-war between the Bush administration and the UN inspections team. Divulging such information is delicate because it could threaten individuals whom the Iraqi regime could surmise are the only likely sources, and it could tip off the Iraqi regime to destroy evidence before inspectors have a chance to get to it.
How the US and Iraq handle any forthcoming information could also cause Iraqis with information, like scientists, to clam up rather than risk their lives. That is why the US is insisting that inspectors take advantage of a provision in the UN resolution that calls for removing key information holders - and their families - from the country for debriefing. Last week Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, met with Hans Blix, who heads the UN inspection effort, to press the US position.
But Mr. Blix responded by calling on the US to turn over whatever information it has. Most analysts believe the US, having bought into the UN process, will have to do just that. "Sure it's a risk, but we're going to have to take that risk and turn over what we have," says Mr. Korb, now an analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. "Otherwise, we're never going to have much support from the international community for going after Saddam."
The US may be gleaning some of its intelligence from special operations forces already in Iraq. "We have a list of 10,000 nuclear scientists, chemical engineers, and technicians inside Iraq," says Admiral Baker. "I assume we've got some information from someone. But the question is how do we use it?"