When the United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution last November giving Iraq a last chance to come clean on all of its weapons programs, much of the credit for bringing everyone on board went to Secretary of State Colin Powell.
Now once again, if the unity of the international community on the issue of Iraq is to be kept intact, it will depend largely on the skills of President Bush's chief diplomat. His success when he brings the American case here next week will also depend on the caliber of the evidence the United States says it has to prove that Saddam Hussein continues to harbor and develop weapons of mass destruction.
On paper, the objective of all 15 Security Council nations is the full and verifiable disarmament of the Iraqi regime. But with cracks appearing in that unity, Powell has a big job to do.
While the US is arguing that "the diplomatic window is closing here," a majority of Council members - including three of the five veto-carrying permanent members - say weapons inspections in Iraq are working and deserve more time.
UN weapons inspectors say they are stepping up their investigations in Iraq, with that work expected to continue at least until chief weapons inspectors Hans Blix and Mohammed AlBaradei give the Security Council another report of their findings, scheduled for Feb. 14.
But many UN diplomats believe it will now be Powell's presentation here next Wednesday, announced by President Bush in his State of the Union address, that will largely determine whether the international community remains united - or the US ends up shunting the UN aside to focus on a "coalition of the willing" for a war with Iraq.
"We have decisive days ahead of us, and I put the emphasis on 'days,' " says one US official here, pointedly noting that the US is no longer speaking in terms of weeks or months of inspections and UN debate over whether they are working.
The Bush administration is still debating what steps to take after Powell's appearance to try to solidify international support for the US course, officials say. But the question is likely to be part of talks President Bush will have with British Prime Minister Tony Blair today at Camp David.
The US is only expected to seek a second Iraq resolution from the Council, this time authorizing force, if it is assured such a vote would not merely demonstrate international disunity. But British officials say their government is preparing drafts of a possible resolution that might, for example, set a short deadline for Iraq to unequivocally demonstrate that it has embraced full and proactive cooperation with UN inspectors on its weapons programs.
Although falling short of an actual authorization of use of force, such a resolution would help satisfy concerns of other European powers that the US not act outside the international framework.
One major challenge Powell must address is the split that has already formed over the perceived purpose of his presentation. For the US and its closest ally, Britain, Powell will take the podium in New York to demonstrate how Saddam Hussein continues, probably incorrigibly, to deceive the weapons inspectors and the world.
"The debate here is missing the point, there is a danger in going around in circles," said Sir Jeremy Greenstock, Britain's ambassador to the UN, after a full day of Security Council discussion Wednesday on the implications of the inspectors' reports earlier in the week.
But for other council members, Powell's presentation is being described first as an assist to the inspections process. Several ambassadors, including those from France and Germany, said Wednesday their countries welcome Powell sharing the kind of intelligence the inspectors can use to do their jobs better.
Echoing that perspective, Mexico's UN ambassador, Adolfo Aguilar Zinser, emphasized that any action must remain within the confines of "multilateralism."
US officials say that while some of the intelligence Powell will reveal has already been shared with the inspections teams, most of it will be "new" evidence. The evidence is expected to include procurement data detailing Iraqi attempts to acquire weapons materials, intercepts of official Iraqi conversations detailing illegal and deceptive activities, and intelligence on Iraqi actions thwarting the inspectors' work.
But US officials here and in Washington suggest the administration is involved in an intense interagency debate over just what intelligence can be divulged for public consumption without compromising sources and the most efficient military action. "I suspect there are useful things you want to say that you can't say," says Ray Caldwell, a former State Department official and now a global-security expert at the US Institute of Peace in Washington.
Still, Powell is expected to come with props in hand, giving the presentation a flavor reminiscent of the famous case made by Adlai Stevenson at the UN that proved with dramatic photos Soviet missile deployment in Cuba.