After a UN resolution, the 30-day countdown starts
A little debated clause calls for Iraq to volunteer all information about its weapons.
For weeks, France and the United States have danced a diplomatic tango to define a UN resolution that could precipitate or forestall a war with Iraq.
One of the key sticking points has been the labeling of Iraq's disregard for weapons inspections as a "material breach" of UN authority and whether such a breach should serve as a trigger for military action.
But a likelier and more immediate trigger has been lost in the shuffle.
Once a new resolution is in place and a US-French compromise is expected by next week Iraq will have 30 days to provide a full, detailed declaration of whatever remains of its chemical, biological and nuclear weapons and weapons programs.
That would paint Baghdad into a corner, say experts: either confess everything and presumably contradict earlier past pronouncements that its hands are clean, or cheat and deceive, and run the risk that inspectors will find what's hidden.
The declaration will also make obvious to experts which choice Iraq has taken and whether military action is needed to force Saddam Hussein's compliance.
"In some cases, we have solid evidence that they're saying isn't true," says Richard Spertzel, former head of the UN inspections team searching for biological weapons. "When things don't add up, you start asking questions. And if you start getting dumb answers, you know you got a problem."
"If Iraq doesn't make a full disclosure, then it's up to the inspectors to find what Iraq has, and that's not what they're set up to do. That literally could take years."
The call for a full, final and complete disclosure or "FFCD's," as inspectors referred to them is nothing new.
After Iraq's surrender ended the 1991 Gulf War, the original idea of weapons inspections was that Iraq would declare its arsenal, and the UN would verify. A benchmark was necessary, to avoid a searching-for-a-needle-in-a-haystack approach.
It was only in July 1995 that Iraq acknowledged it had a biological weapons program, once UN inspectors uncovered it. Spertzel himself says he counted five FFCD's made by Iraq during his years as an inspector, with countless more drafts proffered.
But each time some arsenal was uncovered, the Council primarily France and Russia, leery of a confrontation with Baghdad that might have led to another war allowed Iraq to produce a new FFCD.
Without the credible threat of force, say analysts, Iraq knew it could get away with deception.
But inspectors have not returned to Iraq for four years, and much of the world seems to have forgotten its past transgressions and intransigence, say observers. With Washington today once again ratcheting up pressure on Iraq, there is recognition that to garner international support for war, there is a need to give Iraq "one more chance" to comply and to establish a fresh body of evidence of non-compliance.
But to ensure compliance, observers say, it's essential to have both deadlines and the threat of "serious consequences" for stonewalling or deception.
Without deadlines and threat of force, "You're back in Iraq's world, where we've been the past 11 years," says Kelly Motz, a research fellow with the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control.
"You have to put the onus on Iraq, not on the inspectors to find everything Iraq is hiding. Why should Iraq be truthful? With US forces sitting on your border, looking like a credible threat to live up to the threat of 'regime change,' that might be enough to push Iraq to give up its weapons of mass destruction."
Of some dispute is whether Baghdad should be expected to disclose not only its weapons and programs, but also account for its vast chemical and petrochemicals industry - some of which is said to have "dual-use capability" in chemical weaponry.
The US resolution, drafted with British approval, calls for full disclosure of entire chemicals industry, also within 30 days.
But on Monday, chief UN weapons inspector Hans Blix said that while the first demand is reasonable, "To declare all other chemical programs in a country with a fairly large chemical industry ... might be more problematic in a short time."
And while Blix has repeatedly described himself and UN-affiliated International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Mohamed el Baradei as "servants" of the Security Council, a French diplomat said she would defer to the duo's judgment.
"The basic French position is to accept what Blix and el Baradei can accept," says the diplomat. "If they say it's acceptable, as experts they know perfectly what they need."
Blix and el Baradei, the leaders of UN weapons inspection teams were in Washington Wednesday for the second time in a month, this time for meetings with President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice.
A US official said American negotiators haven't decided whether to bend on the deadline, but defended the need for an accounting of the chemicals industry.
The official also suggested that some on the Council resist any sort of deadlines, seeing them as a recipe for confrontation - and a military attack.
"When you look at Iraq's past behavior and how much lying and deceit it has done, it's prudent to put such language in a resolution and not give them the benefit of the doubt," says the official.
"A full disclosure shouldn't be difficult to do; they keep records. Those who support Iraq are going to see a trigger in just about everything. But Iraq doesn't get to pick and choose what it has to do. The Iraqis have certain obligations."