WASHINGTON — A dozen years after Iraq's invasion of little oil-rich Kuwait, the endgame over the future of Saddam Hussein's regime has finally begun.
Or has it?
The international haggling is over. A new U.N. resolution on Iraq passed Friday, and weapons inspectors soon could be heading back to Baghdad. The Bush administration is pushing and planning for a speedy denouement that will either yield any weapons of mass destruction Iraq might possess or spark war to find and destroy them.
Yet a growing chorus of former weapons inspectors, intelligence analysts and Iraq experts warns that disarming Baghdad could drag on quite possibly beyond the preferred timing for a U.S. military operation in the cooler winter months.
In what could prove to be the administration's worst-case scenario, the Iraqi regime may comply at least at the outset, the sources predict. Hussein may even allow U.N. teams entry into eight palace compounds, access he long restricted on grounds of Iraqi sovereignty.
"We are setting ourselves up for a big confrontation. We'll try in-your-face hard-line inspections assuming the Iraqis won't cooperate. But Saddam will meet them with all kinds of fluffy-stuff public demonstrations, opening the palaces to the Iraqi people and other creative ploys to distract attention and make the whole thing look silly, hoping to throw the inspections off course," said Judith Yaphe, a former intelligence analyst now at the National Defense University in Washington.
"By the time the inspectors get in, there'll be nothing to look for in the palaces they want to check," she said. "That will be the pattern over and over again, wherever the inspectors go."
How the showdown unfolds will be keyed to both deadlines and performance. But despite the unprecedented pressures and demands on him, Hussein still holds many cards, U.N. and U.S. officials concede.
"It's going to be easier for him to string out the process beyond the administration's [informal] deadline and harder for the United States to find a trigger mechanism to act militarily," said Phebe Marr, an Iraq expert and former U.S. government analyst. "We've already been slowed just in getting a U.N. resolution."
The first test will be the Friday deadline for Iraq to accept the new U.N. resolution. Many analysts both inside and outside government expect Hussein to agree.
"With Saddam, it's always been about one thing: survival. He wants to stay in power, and he'll do what it takes to keep it, even when he doesn't want to," said Whitley Bruner, a former U.S. intelligence official who served in Iraq.
As it has in the past, Baghdad may at first fuss and fume before submitting to this new, tougher round of inspections.
"The resolution is a declaration of war against Iraq. It undermines the basic principles of the U.N. Charter. It also undermines all the earlier Security Council resolutions about Iraq," Foreign Minister Naji Sabri told CNN nearly two weeks before the resolution passed.
The real test will be the 30-day deadline for handing over a complete list of any Iraqi nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and ballistic missiles. Baghdad was supposed to provide such a list within 15 days of the Persian Gulf War's end in 1991, but it still hadn't complied by the time the weapons inspectors withdrew in 1998.
Iraq has insisted for months that it has nothing left to declare, one reason the U.S. pushed hard for the U.N. to make lying or failing to fully declare any of its deadliest arms a "material breach" on Iraq's part that could justify military action.
Coming clean will be tough. But again, several former weapons inspectors and Iraq experts predict that Baghdad is likely in the end to confirm that it still has weapons of mass destruction.
As part of the 1991 cease-fire, Iraq initially gave up roughly a third of its weapons, hoping the U.N. teams would soon go away. They didn't. In the mid-1990s, Iraq again admitted it still had some weaponry, after claiming to be clean, a move forced by the defection of Hussein's son-in-law, who managed programs to develop weapons of mass destruction.
As a stalling tactic, however, all Iraq has to do is confess to a few arms, perhaps a few token Scud missiles, and some of the "dual-use" programs that can make chemical or biological weapons out of everyday ingredients, analysts and former weapons inspectors say. That could muddy the waters and lead to further splits in the international community.
"If Iraq coughs up some of the stuff, particularly real biological and chemical weapons, then the United States is in trouble. It'll be very difficult for the administration to say it still may launch a war. We couldn't justify this even to the Brits," Bruner said.
"There are many in the administration who are concerned that's exactly what Saddam will do," he said. "Their position is that the United States can't afford to take yes for an answer."