After the 1991 Gulf War the UN told Iraq to disclose what preparations it had made to build weapons of mass destruction, and dismantle them. But it has fought against this regime for seven years. In August, Iraq severely limited the activities of UN weapons inspectors and earlier this month it halted them altogether. It demanded an end to UN sanctions, but the US blocked this. Now the US and Britain are threatening to attack unless Iraq lets the weapons inspectors start their work again.
Moreover, in the latest of his famous miscalculations, President Saddam Hussein expected President Bill Clinton to lose the mid-term elections, and thought that impending impeachment would leave the Mr Clinton no choice but to let him get away with it. Instead the opposite is true.
Can the US and Britain strike at any time?
It is arguable whether they need further UN approval. The US tends to argue that it doesn't, because the original UN resolutions contain all the authorisation necessary, whereas Britain leans towards gathering as much diplomatic support as possible.
How likely is major military action?
More so, probably, than at any time since the 1991 Gulf War. President Saddam's latest defiance, at the very moment the UN was ready to set a timetable for lifting sanctions, has exasperated even countries like France which had previously argued against the military option.
What are the likely targets of an attack?
The US would first have to take out Iraq's air defence system. It would probably target the remaining sites where Iraq is suspected to be building weapons of mass destruction, but Washington admits that it would be impossible to destroy Iraq's capacity to build chemical and biological weapons from the air. More likely is an assault on command and control sites, communications, and targets linked to Saddam Hussein's inner political circle, including the Republican Guard.
What would be the objective of an assault?
That is less clear. A large-scale attack would virtually rule out putting the weapons inspectors back into Iraq. The US has recently approved new aid for the Iraqi opposition, and is trying to build a strategy to replace President Saddam. But there is little evidence that it has thought through any effort to overthrow him now. More likely is a punitive attack.
How soon might it happen?
Theoretically, by the time you open this newspaper. The US already has the force in place to launch airstrikes at Iraqi military targets, and insists it has all the authorisation it needs from existing UN resolutions. In practice, probably not for 10 days or a fortnight. This would allow time for a formal deadline to be given Baghdad, and for a further build- up of allied forces, including ground troops.
What could stop it?
A climb-down by President Saddam, in which he not only promises but delivers full compliance with UN weapons inspectors. This is still possible but not very likely. Or a blanket opposition by Washington's Arab allies to the use of force.
How likely is this?
The $64,000 question. The US maintains it has broad and strong backing in the region for punitive action against President Saddam. The reality is less clear, and has been blurred further by Israel's footdragging over the Wye accords, raising the old question of double standards. Among the big powers, Britain is solid with Washington, as (apparently) is France. Russia and China again oppose military strikes.