The Bush administration is moving to the equivalent of closing arguments in its case against Iraq amid signs that the two audiences it is trying to sway - the American public and the international community - are slowly leaning in its direction.
The administration hopes to clinch the case for the argument that weapons inspections are never likely to disarm an uncooperative and deceptive Saddam Hussein. To that end, President Bush sends Secretary of State Colin Powell - the administration's most trusted and persuasive voice in the international arena - to the United Nations Security Council Wednesday.
As the diplomats of a number of key Security Council countries argue that Mr. Powell's presentation will be crucial to how their countries turn in the Iraq showdown, some countries - if still not their publics - are signaling a willingness to go along with the United States if there is a war.
At the same time, the American public appears to be moving toward supporting a war in-creasingly, even if it means fighting without broad international support.
One key event that will figure in determining the eventual breadth of an international coalition takes place Tuesday in Le Touquet, a French resort on the English Channel, where British Prime Minister Tony Blair will meet with French President Jacques Chirac. Mr. Blair will press the French leader for support for a second UN resolution - this one authorizing the use of force.
"There are two possible scenarios [for the summit]: open disagreement and an emphasis on points of agreement - with agreement clearly preferable for both the international community and Europe," says Philippe Moreau Defarges, a foreign-policy expert at the French Institute of Foreign Relations in Paris.
The leaders can emphasize two key points they agree on - the need to maintain international unity and to work within the UN, and the need for some kind of second resolution before force is used, Mr. Moreau Defarges says. They could also agree on a more open-ended statement: that if Mr. Hussein continues to defy the UN by not cooperating, "something has to be done," he adds.
Last November, the 15-member Council voted unanimously in favor of tough new weapons inspections to disarm Iraq. The Bush administration and the British argue that Hussein is not cooperating sufficiently with the inspectors, and must be confronted soon as a grave and present danger.
But in the run-up to Powell's presentation, the French, the Russians, the Chinese, and other key countries are arguing publicly that the inspections are working and deserve more time. Powell will have to offer "some very strong evidence" in order to influence European public opinion, Moreau Defarges says.
In another sign of the high-stakes diplomacy going on, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow yesterday. The Russian leader last week indicated a willingness to move to the US side of the divide should Iraq continue to stonewall on full cooperation. For his part, Mr. Berlusconi said there "must be complete unity" in the international community in fighting all aspects of terrorism. He also made clear he includes the Iraqi regime in his purview of international terrorism threats.
Publicly, the debate boils down to war versus containment - with even some prominent American military and political figures arguing that keeping Hussein "in a box" is working, and outweighs the risks posed by a war.
But behind the scenes, some signs of support for the US - and especially for its prewar maneuverings - are emerging.
For example, Jordan and Turkey, two countries where public opposition to war remains fierce, are allowing US forces based in their territory to launch preparatory operations into Iraq.
And Italy's Berlusconi is one of eight European leaders who expressed support for the US position in a letter last week. The letter demonstrated the deep rifts in Europe over Iraq and kept alive the controversy sparked by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's comment about the "new" and "old" Europes.
In fact, some analysts say the rift demonstrates how the subject of Iraq is now as much a defining issue for Europe - and for relations with the US - as it is about disarmament and international terrorism. "If France goes on with its tough line, it could provoke a major crisis in Europe, and France would be the first victim of that crisis," France's Moreau Defarges says.
John Hulsman, a specialist in European affairs at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, says that while the Germans are "off the charts" with their opposition to the US position, the French are unlikely to remain out on a limb against their own interests.
"The French understand their national interests. They invented the concept, so in the end they'll come along," he says.
At the same time, Moreau Defarges says countries' positions are gradually being driven by a perceived need to side with the US, the world's only superpower. "The feeling about war itself has not changed. There is still this strong feeling this is a stupid war. It is concerns about relations with the US that overwhelm those considerations."
In this context, Powell's presentation could provide the French especially with the opportunity they need to begin easing away from the German "no war" view. "Chirac can find common ground with Blair," Mr. Hulsman says, "but Powell can provide the fig leaf that will allow the French to come on board."