Iraq is reluctantly embracing its own disarmament as never before, under pressure as a crucial United Nations Security Council report on its progress looms on Friday.
But UN officials and analysts are raising concerns that, as an American-led invasion force builds on the horizon, Iraqi cooperation may not continue after that deadline if pressure on Iraq eases.
Dimitri Perricos, the UN deputy chief weapons inspector who is now here, says Iraq's latest moves amount to "concrete disarmament action."
Such news is likely to adjust the conclusion of a quarterly report submitted to the UN last Friday by Hans Blix, the chief inspector. The report found that the "results in terms of disarmament have been very limited so far."
Six more Al Samoud missiles were crushed with heavy bulldozers Sunday - bringing the total to 10 out of some 130 missiles tagged by the UN. The second of two casting chambers for making missile fuel units for another missile system, the al-Fatah, was destroyed Sunday at another site. At least three Iraqi scientists have been interviewed, after a three-week hiatus
And Mr. Perricos began talks Sunday on how Iraq can prove what it claims: That it destroyed large quantities of VX nerve gas and anthrax shortly after the 1991 Gulf War. Sunday, Gen. Amir al Saadi, an Iraqi president adviser, described the stance as "proactive cooperation."
By complying on several fronts now, Saddam Hussein "is weakening the American case for war, because it shows Iraqi cooperation," says Sean Boyne, an Ireland-based Iraq specialist who writes for Jane's Intelligence Review in London. "It's a very shrewd diplomatic game, and if you look at the divisions in NATO, Europe and at the UN, he is making headway."
But progress on weapons inspections is in the eye of the beholder. The White House dismissed the start of the missile destruction as the "latest step in the deception game." And Perricos, speaking at a press conference late Saturday, said there remains "a long list of unresolved issues, where we have to have answers."
UN inspectors make clear their belief that Baghdad's willingness to comply is due largely to American military threats, the pressure of UN report deadlines, or high-profile visitors like Perricos, and advice from Baghdad allies pleading to do everything possible to avert war.
"The best time to press a point is when a Security Council meeting is coming up," Perricos said, indicating in this context, that the inspectors had begun to make new requests for interviews with Iraqi scientists.
"We have not found the famous smoking gun," Perricos said, instead noting that visits to more than 500 sites by UN nuclear, chemical, and biological teams have created a new "baseline" of information for "capping" Iraqi efforts to rebuild weapons of mass destruction.
The UN requires that the entire Al Samoud system, with its launchers, radar and electronic network, warheads and 380 illegally imported missile engines, be destroyed.
Washington last week expanded its lists of demands on Iraq to avoid war, with President George Bush making clear that he wants both total disarmament, and for Mr. Hussein to relinquish power, before he will withdraw the US invasion force.
To many Iraqis, that means that war is coming, no matter what they give up to weapons inspectors.
"The Americans are quite clear. [Bush] is intending to go the military route," says Abdul Wahab al-Qassib, at the Center for International Studies at Baghdad University. "So whether we destroy the missiles or not, I think the Americans are going to that end. So why assist them, and give them help?"
That view adds to the concerns of some Iraqis, who wonder how Hussein can balance the competing demands of the weapons inspectors to disarm, and his unwillingness to compromise on domestic issues.
"If it wasn't to avoid a war, Iraqis would be angry with the government, for being humiliated in this way - it is not in the nature of Saddam Hussein," says Wamidh Nadhmi, a political scientist at Baghdad University. "People are talking, not very openly, 'Why is our president giving so many concessions to the Americans, to the foreigners, when he doesn't accommodate reasonable concessions to the Iraqi population, like sharing power, the right to express your views.'
"I don't think this policy, in the long-run, is running to his advantage," Mr. Nadhmi says.
UN inspectors say they expect more interviews with Iraqi scientists in coming days, though 28 requests were rejected in the past three weeks, and three others expected on Saturday did not take place.
The destruction of the Al Samoud casting chambers was work once carried out by the predecessors of the current UN team in the 1990s
"We are learning from mistakes of our predecessors," Perricos said, to "destroy things so they can't be rebuilt." The Iraqis "understand the issue - it's not as though they don't know what it's all about," he adds. "Transparency is the magic word."