Even as the UN Security Council convened in New York last night to consider an ostensibly conciliatory letter delivered earlier in the day by Iraq, Sandy Berger, the US National Security Adviser, publicly warned that America remained "poised to take military action".
Baghdad appeared, none the less, to have caught the White House off-balance. The missive stated that President Saddam was ready to allow the resumption of inspections by both Unscom, the UN body charged with searching out Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, and by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Appended to the letter, however, was an annex detailing the circumstances under which Iraq would like the Council to open a promised "comprehensive review" of the sanctions that have been imposed on the country since the 1991 Gulf War. The US and Britain regarded these as conditions being imposed by Baghdad.
Speaking outside 10 Downing Street last night, Tony Blair said Iraq's compliance with UN weapons inspections must be "immediate and unconditional". Nine "conditions" put forward by Iraq in the annex to its letter were unacceptable, and Baghdad could face air strikes at any time unless it fully met UN demands.
Mr Berger said that the letter and the annex "had more holes than a Swiss cheese" and were "neither unequivocal nor unconditional and therefore unacceptable". To maintain the pressure, the White House announced that President Clinton was delaying an official visit to Asia to remain in Washington.
Pentagon sources said last night that Mr Clinton had already given the green light for a missile assault on Iraq as word reached Washington of the Iraqi letter. One American official told Reuters that B-52 bombers had actually been heading for Iraq with cruise missiles, but had been called back, adding: "It was close."
Written by Tariq Aziz, the Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister, the letter was delivered to Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary General. Mr Annan quickly declared his appreciation of the letter, telling journalists he considered it "positive".
Unquestionably, the day's developments added unexpected constraints on President Clinton's next move. If the US, presumably with British backing, decides to press ahead with a military strike, there will be certain outrage from countries more sympathetic to Iraq, notably Russia and France.
Iraq's move followed an earlier meeting of the UN Security Council on Friday night. That ended with an agreement to allow Mr Annan to draft one more letter to the Iraqi president. That letter, sent during Friday night, once more urged President Saddam to reverse his decision of 31 October, ending all co-operation with Unscom. It also reiterated the offer by the Council to undertake a "comprehensive review" of the sanctions on Iraq.
It was in response to that letter that President Saddam replied that he was indeed ready to allow inspections to resume. He may, however, have underestimated American determination by also adding the annex.
Included on the annex's list was a request that the comprehensive review be initiated swiftly following the resumption of inspections, preferably within seven days, and that the UN study "the question of [Richard] Butler", the head of Unscom, whom Baghdad would like removed.
Washington's dismissal of President Saddam's overture was certain to sow fresh dissent inside the Security Council. While Britain continued to stand beside President Clinton, the Austrian Foreign Minister, Wolfgang Schuessel, speaking for the European Union presidency, last night proposed allowing Mr Annan to visit Baghdad to seek clarification of Iraq's position.
Focus, page 22-23;
Comment, page 28