It may be the end of arms inspections as Iraq has known them in the six years since the end of the Gulf war. The rules of the game are already changing. "Iraq today turned away in a polite way three Americans who were with a United Nations arms-inspection team arriving from Bahrain," said a diplomat in Baghdad yesterday.
Iraq is emphasising that its quarrel is with the US, not the UN. "On Monday there will be no American inside Iraq (taking part) in inspections," said Taha Yassin Ramadan, Iraqi Vice-President and close confidant of President Saddam Hussein. "There is no retreat from our decision until things are put in order," he said.
The US and UK, on the contrary, have repeatedly said that the Iraqi challenge is to the UN as a whole. They do not rule out military action. "US forces are always ready," said General Anthony Zinni, who commands US forces in most of the Middle East. He added: "The situation in the Gulf is tense even now. The possibility that operations could be conducted in our region is very real."
Both sides are moving cautiously. But the fact that President Saddam has chosen to provoke a crisis now probably means he is feeling stronger. It is not just that three permanent members of the UN Security Council - Russia, France and China - think that the US and Britain are being too hardline.
It is also that the re-entry of Iraqi tanks into Iraqi Kurdistan last year and the failure of the US to respond effectively - President Bill Clinton ordered missiles to be fired at targets 500 miles from where the Iraqi army was in action - showed the limits of what the US was prepared to do.
Iraq has always felt that the UN Special Commission (Unscom) on monitoring weapons of mass destruction was largely an excuse to keep the country isolated. Only when Unscom reported that Iraq had no missiles, nerve gas, chemical weapons or nuclear materials left would the economic siege of Iraq - above all the ban on its oil exports - be lifted.
But at the same President Saddam made extraordinary efforts to hide the remains of the programmes he developed in the Eighties - when he was allied to the US against Iran - to give Iraq weapons of mass destruction. In 1995 Iraq was still prepared to spend $2m on gyroscopes taken from Soviet SS-18 missiles and which could only be used as guidance systems for Iraqi rockets.
In the lead-up to the Gulf war the Iraqi leader was obsessed with a desire to develop nuclear weapons. He had two teams designing a nuclear warhead. He also had a stretched version of the Al-Hussein Scud, which could reach Tel Aviv. But Iraq never developed a warhead which could fit on the missiles it had available. It did have chemical and nerve gases available in 1991, but did not dare use them for fear of a retaliatory strike.
When Unscom was first established, Iraq regarded Rolf Ekeus, the Swedish diplomat who was its chief, and David Kay, the UN's chief field officer in Iraq, as wholly under American influence. They played a curious game of cat-and-mouse with Iraq, as Unscom pursued hidden equipment and documents from military base to military base. In 1995 Mr Ekeus said that Iraq was in substantial compliance with UN resolutions on revealing its weapons of mass destruction. But this was almost immediately contradicted by the defection of General Hussein Kamel, President Saddam's son-in-law and former head of Iraq's military industries. He immediately disclosed that one of Unscom's chief translators was an Iraqi spy.
Uncertain of how much General Kamel would reveal, Iraq planted a million pages of documents on its strategic-weapons programme in a chicken farm he owned outside Baghdad. The Unscom inspectors noted that, given their place of storage, the papers were amazingly clean. A gardener at the farm casually mentioned to an Arabic-speaking inspector that Iraqi special forces had delivered the papers to the farm a few days before.
President Saddam's determination to preserve a few missiles and some chemical and nerve gasses was always irrational.
The only logic behind it was that giving them up would show weakness. He wanted to show that military defeat had not humbled him. But in doing so he provided the US with the excuse it wanted to keep Iraq isolated and maintain its predominance in the Middle East, which had reached its peak with the Gulf war.Reuse content