The tale of Iraqi deception was told with sound and fury, the key points repeated and driven home with satellite photographs, video footage and the best covert intelligence American technology can provide. The breadth, if not the depth, of evidence presented by Powell in his 90-minute address appears to have silenced some of the sceptics in Washington. The response in the UN Security Council was muted by comparison, but it was clear that the address had made an impression on Powell’s target audience.

As the 15 members of the council stood up in turn to give their allotted nine-minute response, all eyes were on the representatives of France and Russia, who between them hold the key to a second resolution authorising war.

The responses from the two sceptics were grave, but they did not offer the sort of unqualified support for military action that Powell was looking for. French foreign minister Dominique de Villepin said his own government’s intelligence on Iraqi biological and chemical weapons programmes largely tallied with the evidence presented by the US. There were, however, gaps in Western intelligence that could only be fully clarified by further UN inspections, he said, and France was still not prepared to see the US go it alone. ‘This is a demarche that is difficult, but it is anchored in resolution 1441, which we should conduct together. If this approach fails and leads us into an impasse, we will not rule out any option, including, as a last resort, the use of force.’

The response from Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov fell far short of an endorsement of military action. In a tacit dig at US intelligence gathering capabilities – a diplomatic jibe from the Cold War era- Russia offered to provide its own aircraft for aerial monitoring of Iraq. Like his French counterpart, Ivanov insisted that all efforts should be made to ensure the present UN inspections regime was not abandoned. ‘In this connection, we must not – we cannot – rule out the possibility at the Security Council that at some stage it may need to adopt a new resolution and, perhaps, more than one resolution.’

This is not the sort of resolution the US is looking for, and chief UN weapons inspector Hans Blix and the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency Mohammed Elbaradei will return from the New York meeting with little doubt that Washington is running out of patience with the weapons inspections regime. That sense of frustration was driven home on 6 February by UK Prime Minister Tony Blair – President Bush’s most stalwart supporter – who received the two inspectors in London on their way back to Iraq. Blair’s aim is to reinforce the impression given by Washington that war is inevitable. While the US and UK have stated that they are prepared to go it alone against Iraq, diplomatic prudence requires that they secure the approval of the weapons inspectors, while American public opinion – the ultimate arbiter of the Iraq crisis – dictates that a second UN resolution authorising war is essential.

If Washington decides to press on regardless and pursue a mandate for military action in the Security Council, what sort of support can it count on from other members? Of the permanent Security Council members that wield the right to a veto, France, the most vocal opponent of military action in the past, has now conceded that war may be necessary as a last resort.

‘It should . be clear that, in the context [of military action], the UN must be at the centre of the action to guarantee the unity of Iraq, to guarantee the stability of the region, to protect civilians and preserve the unity of the international community,’ said De Villepin. The intimation is that the French government may demand its own involvement in the post-conflict policing effort as a condition of its support for military action. This would in turn give France preferential access to opportunities that arise in the reconstruction of a powerful economy. If it looks like war is inevitable, Russia too is unlikely to give up its existing stakes in the Iraqi oil industry by alienating the US.

The key question now is timing. Both France and Russia insist that more time is needed before all options to avoid a war are exhausted. Following his meeting with Blair, Blix pointed out what those options were: Iraq must allow U-2 spy planes to fly over the country; it must allow inspectors to interview Iraqi scientists privately; and it must enact legislation implementing UN demands. The question remains whether the UN report Blix is due to present on 14 February will provide sufficient corroboration of Powell’s evidence for the US to seek a new resolution on Iraq, and with it a mandate for war.