The US and its critics on the UN Security Council appear to be fundamentally divided on a basic question: whether the continuation of weapons inspections in Iraq is more dangerous than war.
To the French and Germans, the inspectors' presence is arguably as important as any discoveries. With UN teams crawling around the country, Saddam Hussein's nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons programs are now "frozen," according to French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin.
Thus, while Mr. Hussein represents a danger to the world community, it is a controlled danger, according to the Europeans.
To the Bush administration, this return to an inspections status quo is not good enough. US officials profess little faith in the ability of a handful of inspectors serving as a deterrent to WMD development. Implicit in their rhetoric is also the assumption that the most dangerous Iraqi weapon of mass destruction is Hussein himself.
"We cannot rely on inspectors gradually finding [Hussein's WMD] and disarming him," says John Reppert, a retired Army brigadier general who headed the US On-Site Inspections Agency. "The US thinks that doing it quicker and more effectively [via fighting], even though it will cause casualties, is the only way we can have security."
Against this background, the much-anticipated Jan. 27 progress report by the top UN inspectors was something easily interpreted by both sides as supporting their position.
The report was tough - to some observers, unexpectedly tough - on the lack of substantive compliance by Iraq with UN disarmament resolutions.
"Iraq appears not to have come to a genuine acceptance, not even today, of the disarmament that was demanded of it," UN weapons chief Hans Blix said at the beginning of a crucial assessment of 60 days of weapons inspections. Mr. Blix, head of the UN Monitoring, Verification, and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC), said it was not enough for the Iraqis to "open doors."
Blix noted that Iraq's 12,000-page arms declaration contained little more than old material previously submitted to inspectors. One exception was an Air Force document that indicates that Iraq has failed to account for some 6,000 chemical rockets. "The finding of the rockets show that Iraq needs to make more effort to show that its declaration is currently accurate."
On the nerve agent VX, which Iraq is believed to have weaponized on the eve of the Gulf War, Blix said the Iraqis haven't sufficiently answered questions regarding the fate of its stockpiles.
On biological weapons, Blix said Iraq had failed to produce "convincing evidence" that it unilaterally destroyed its anthrax stockpiles and that there are indications that Iraq could have had larger quantities than it reported to inspectors.
At the same time, Blix said that Iraqi compliance with the process of inspections had been more than adequate. He indicated that the inspections process was just getting under way, noting that a new training facility for inspectors has recently opened in Austria and that teams in Iraq itself were getting ready to open a second field office.
In sharp contrast to the administration's stance that inspections have run their course, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said yesterday inspectors should be given more time to their jobs.
"They should be given the time to do their work, and all of us, the Council and the Assembly, must realize that time will be necessary, a reasonable amount of time. I'm not saying forever, but they do need time to get their work done, and I suspect the Council will allow that to be done," Mr. Annan said.
Annan said he remained hopeful that Iraq could be disarmed peacefully and he praised Blix and chief nuclear inspector Mohammed ElBaradei, whom he called "determined and independent-minded."
The struggle within the UN Security Council over the future course of action against Hussein has likely convinced some of the more hawkish members of the administration that it was a mistake to try to work within the UN in the first place.
But the US always indicated that it reserved the right to act unilaterally, notes Hurst Hannum, a professor of international law and expert on the UN at Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.
"Given the increasingly vocal opposition to going to war alone, it probably remains the best forum in which the US can demonstrate it has some international support," says Hannum.
The French, British, and other allies share the goal of ensuring that Hussein is not a danger to his region or Western powers, notes Hannum. But they may be unlikely to ever agree with US tactics.
For one thing, they believe that the US may have plans for the region that it is not explicating in public. What does the US want to do with Iraq's oil? Will it move on to pressure other nations in the region, such as Iran? Will it look to permanently increase its influence by trying to spread democratic change throughout this area of the world?
"That's what makes our European allies nervous: They don't believe us when we say our primary goal is ridding Saddam of WMD," says Hannum.
• Material from wire services was used in this report.