Reporting "good progress" but mixed results during two days of talks with Iraq, United Nations weapons chiefs left Baghdad Sunday having secured UN interviews with scientists and a diplomatic pouch full of more promises.
But despite Iraq's handing over new documents about its anthrax, VX nerve agent, and missile programs, chief UN inspector Hans Blix said cooperation on issues of substance were "less good."
Nuclear chief Mohamed ElBaradei - who has said Iraq needed to show "drastic change" - said that instead he saw only "the beginning of a change of heart."
The two will take the details of their talks to the UN Security Council on Friday - a critical step in the diplomatic endgame that is likely to show whether Iraq's drip-by-drip compliance is enough to stop the US march to disarm Saddam Hussein by force.
Experts say that Iraq's latest shift toward greater cooperation - while still rejecting U-2 surveillance overflights - is significant, but still leaves Iraq with many moves yet to play.
"When he is really pushed, Saddam has historically made concessions, and I strongly suspect [Mr. Blix and Mr. ElBaradei] will have some tactical successes," says Tim McCarthy, a former UN weapons inspector, now at the Monterey Institute's Center for Non-Proliferation Studies in California. "But in terms of the fundamental strategic change - a government-wide Iraqi decision to disarm - at this moment it's impossible."
To the annoyance of American officials, and underscoring the depth of the international divide over war with Iraq, a report in the German news magazine Der Spiegel, said that France and Germany had a "secret" plan to disarm Iraq peacefully. It called for the deployment of thousands of UN soldiers, reconnaissance flights, and a tripling of the number of weapons inspectors. German officials said Sunday they planned to put forward the proposal, which appears to have Russian backing. Secretary of State Colin Powell dismissed it as "a diversion, not a solution."
Western officials have long expected some form of Iraqi concessions, similar to those that preceded the 1991 Gulf War and American-led strikes against Iraq in the 1990s. In some cases those efforts delayed military action.
"Saddam Hussein finally realized that the the Americans are going to war," says Charles Heyman, editor of the London-based Jane's World Armies. "Up until then, he was saying, 'It's all bluff; they are frightened of taking casualties.'"
It's not clear that a shift this late in the game will halt the American push for a military solution. "I've certainly never seen a buildup like this where they all went home," Mr. Heyman says, noting the surge of American troops in the region to near 200,000. But avoiding war is cheaper, and can yield a sweeter victory for Mr. Bush and the closest US ally on Iraq, British premier Tony Blair.
"[Chinese philosopher] Sun Tzu said 2,000 years ago: 'The greatest general is the one who wins the war without fighting," Heyman adds. "That's a high-risk strategy, and politicians don't normally gamble like this."
Iraq balked at the U-2 flights, saying until this weekend that it couldn't guarantee their safety, since Iraqi antiaircraft gunners were engaged in cat-and-mouse shootouts over no-fly zones over north and south Iraq.
And since inspectors of the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) returned to Iraq last December - with an express mandate to interview scientists in private, and even take them out of the country if necessary - scientists refused until last Thursday to take part in interviews without Iraqi officials present.
But these issues are tailor-made to be bargaining chips for Iraq, critics say, to simply give the impression of compliance.
Despite the skepticism, Blix and ElBaradei "believe the leverage provided by the military buildup and intense scrutiny of the council is enough to make a fundamental change ... or they wouldn't be going" to Baghdad, says Mr. McCarthy. He remains unconvinced: "It's just like hiding weapons - they're giving up the easy stuff first, then will retreat, retreat, retreat in concentric circles, [and] not decide to disarm."
If Iraq has decided to disarm, to save Mr. Hussein's repressive regime, Western diplomats and other experts say it could ruin the US and British case for war. The key will be clear Friday, if Blix and Baradei report substantial change in Iraq's cooperation.
"I don't think this is very likely, but it would basically make it impossible for the US and UK to get a second resolution to bless a war," says Gary Samore, a former Clinton nonproliferation chief now at the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London. "And without that second resolution, it becomes much more difficult - not impossible - for Washington to launch an attack."
Little doubt remains among Security Council members, experts say, that Iraq retains some WMD material - if only from programs already admitted to the UN. The argument is over how to deal with it.
"There is a strong argument for containment; a credible threat of force, robust inspections, and strong control over procurement ... could very well be effective," says Mr. Samore. "But at the same time, you can't quarrel with Bush's contention that a far more effective way to disarm Iraq is to invade the country, destroy the regime and occupy Iraq."
But the price of such a course, is difficult to calculate. "President Bush is gambling that the war is going to be quick and easy, because Iraqi forces will crumble," says Samore. "It's a Texas gamble."
Even at this stage, however, with so many American troops already deployed or on their way to positions ringing Iraq, war may not be inevitable.
"I don't think you go to war simply because of the momentum" of the buildup, says Sir Lawrence Freedman, the head of war studies at King's College London, who says his sources are now stretching the timeline for any war to April. "If [Blix and ElBaradei] kept on saying Iraq is cooperating, and we need more time, then that would undermine the whole drive to war."
Despite the progress in Baghdad this weekend, continuing uncertainty about Iraqi intentions - and the US response - gives Hussein time to maneuver.
"You can imagine if Iraq says: 'Here are five weapons, this is a sign of our good will, and how are you going to bomb us with such extensive cooperation?'" says Mr. McCarthy. "Then Nelson Mandela will go [to Baghdad], or Kofi Annan - there are still many moves left in this game."