President Bush urged the UN Security Council on 17 September not to be fooled by the Iraqi offer, saying that Saddam Hussein had ‘delayed, denied, deceived the world’. The claim was echoed by White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, who said the Iraqi leader had ‘a history of playing ‘rope-a-dope’ with the world’. However, US Secretary of State Colin Powell left the door open for weapons inspections, provided they were underscored by a firm international mandate. ‘The only way to make sure that it is not business as usual and to make sure that it’s not a repeat of the past.is to put it in the form of a new UN resolution.’

Powell’s determination to draw up a resolution with ‘tough conditions [and] tough standards’ initially cut little ice with fellow permanent Security Council member Russia. ‘We have managed to deflect the threat of a military scenario,’ said Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Igor Ivanov on 17 September. ‘We don’t need any special resolution.All the necessary resolutions, all the necessary decisions about that are to hand.’

The UK government confirmed that London is considering a French proposal for the council to pass two resolutions, a course more likely to find favour with Russia. The first would set a deadline for Iraq to comply with UN demands and the second would set out plans for military action if Baghdad failed to do so.

Within the UN, the Iraqi letter set in motion the diplomatic machinery required to effect a return of weapons inspectors. After an initial meeting with Iraqi officials on 17 September, Hans Blix, head of the UN Monitoring Verification & Inspection Commission (Unmovic), said the two sides had agreed to meet again in Vienna in 10 days’ time to finalise arrangements for a new round of inspections. Blix warned that it would take four or five months of preparations before a team could go into Iraq, and that even then it could take at least a year to establish that the country was adequately disarmed.

However, the rhetoric from Washington betrayed signs of growing impatience. Following a talk with congressional leaders on 18 September, Bush said that a draft congressional resolution authorising the president to use ‘all appropriate means’ to deal with Iraq would be put before the House of Representatives within days. ‘It’s an important signal for the world to see that this country is united in our resolve to deal with threats that we face,’ he said.

Democratic Party leaders indicated they would back the resolution in Congress, but complained that the Iraq issue was becoming increasingly tainted by party politics in the run-up to mid-term elections in November. ‘I expressed the concern weeks ago that the closer we get to the election the more likely this whole grave matter could be politicised,’ Senate Majority leader Tom Daschle said on 17 September. ‘And I think that would be very, very destructive and harmful to the long-term message this country ought to be sending.’

The US has kept up its military preparations. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld confirmed that British and American aircraft patrolling the no-fly zones of northern and southern Iraq had switched tactics, focusing their fire on large fixed air defence installations, rather than the mobile radar units and missile launchers which are their usual targets. The change in tactics followed an announcement that up to six B-2 bombers would be moved from Missouri to the British Indian Ocean base of Diego Garcia, while international newswires reported that the US Navy was looking to charter roll-on roll-off vessels to ship ammunition and military vehicles from Europe to the Gulf.