As the United States pores over Iraq's declaration of its weapons development programs, the emphasis will be on gleaning information with which Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein hangs himself.
"Saddam Hussein seems incapable of changing his stripes," says Jon Wolfsthal, an expert on Iraq and nuclear-weapons development at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. "Based on his track record, we can expect he'll end up again misplaying his hand, and do himself in."
The information that leads the Iraqi regime to the gallows could come in two forms, experts say: discrepancies between the current Iraqi declaration and its own previous declarations over the last decade that were supposedly "full, final, and complete" accountings; or contradictions between the declaration and new information the US (or another ally, such as Britain) produces on continuing weapons development.
Any incontrovertible new findings, especially if corroborated by the UN inspectors, would be the surest route to a capital sentence for the Iraqi regime, experts say.
Meanwhile, the White House is ratcheting up its warnings to owners of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) that the US will respond to the use of such weapons against the US or its allies "with all our options."
The warning, included in a new strategy for combating WMDs divulged by the Bush administration this week, is seen by some experts as a timely caution to Mr. Hussein as the US continues to prepare for war. But others say it is really aimed at other countries that possess and export the targeted weapons.
"Saddam Hussein already knows what's going to happen to him if he tries using weapons of mass destruction," says Charles Heyman, editor of Jane's World Armies. "It's really a warning to other countries mostly in the region - North Korea, Iran, Syria, maybe Libya - that says, 'If you're going to continue down this road, you could end up like Saddam Hussein.' "
Experts say it is also further evidence that the Bush administration - despite a recent cooling of its warlike rhetoric in favor of talk of hopes for successful disarmament - has no intention of letting Hussein get away again.
Carnegie's Wolfsthal says that, barring the "unlikely" possibility that Hussein really came clean in his declaration, he expects something like the following sequence of events to lead to war next year: The US finds something in the declaration "that doesn't square with what it has," and turns its information over to the UN inspectors to verify it. The inspectors then report their findings to the UN Security Council, which confirms Iraq guilty of trying to coverup once again. "And the US then says, 'No more second chances,' and goes to war with or without the Security Council."
John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a Virginia-based defense and security analysis company, says Saddam's self-incrimination will come in one of two forms. He could fail to account for the weapons that weapons inspectors said he had four years ago. He might also fail to acknowledge something US intelligence has picked up such as "a new biological or chemical weapons facility hidden under downtown Baghdad."
One potential hanging date already penciled in on some Washington calendars is Jan. 26, when UN weapons inspectors report back to the Security Council.
While the US or any other Security Council member could call a meeting at any time to discuss discrepancies in the Iraqi declaration, the January date will give the US and other Security Council members will time to compare Mr. Hussein's "confession" against intelligence they possess. They will also have had time to share their information with UN inspectors in Iraq so they could corroborate the information.
Using the January reporting date would allow the US to look patient, thorough, and "internationalist" by sticking with the UN process and letting the inspectors play a key role in providing evidence for military action.
The US began indicating a methodical and unhurried approach to Iraq's declaration even as the huge document first arrived in American hands.
At the White House Monday, spokesman Ari Fleischer said "We want to be very deliberate as we move through and look at this document to determine, with the international community, what this indicates about Saddam Hussein and his disarmament."
Those statements back up comments by foreign diplomatic sources in Washington who say the US is assuring them that it does not plan to use the Iraqi declaration on its own as a "trigger" for military action.
Speaking from London, Mr. Heyman says the US will continue looking for "discrepancies" that will be interpreted as noncompliance with the November UN resolution on Iraq. But he says the "ratcheting up" of pressure on Iraq will continue - perhaps with "some sort of limited military operation" short of an assault on Baghdad early in the new year.
Attacking Baghdad would likely only come in the fall, he now believes, if Hussein were still in power despite months of military operations elsewhere in Iraq.