For its part, the US claimed to be helping to speed up analysis of the document. ‘You can think of us as having performed a technical service on behalf of the council,’ Washington’s ambassador to the UN, John Negroponte, said on 12 December. The claim cut little ice with non-permanent council members. Norwegian Foreign Minister Jan Petersen objected to Norway being treated as a ‘second-class country’, while the Syrian government said that US attempts to monopolise the Iraqi declaration were ‘in contradiction to . every kind of logic in the Security Council’.

As inspections entered their third week, more weapons experts from the UN and the International Atomic Energy Agency arrived in Baghdad in mid-December, bringing the total inspection team to about 70. The scope of inspections has also widened. In their first long-range mission, a team of inspectors set out from Baghdad on 10 December on a 240-mile trip to investigate a remote mine on the Syrian border once used to extract uranium. A second team continued to inspect factory sites close to the capital. The two teams have until 25 January to submit an initial report on their findings to the Security Council.

Washington has maintained its military pressure on Baghdad. About 1,000 American and British troops embarked on a week-long military exercise in Qatar on 8 December. Some 60,000 soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen, as well as 200 aircraft, are now in or near the region, and senior US military officials have said Washington will soon have enough equipment to begin an attack in January.

The US has been preparing for a possible conflict by shoring up regional military support and attempting to reconcile Iraqi dissident groups. After securing tentative backing from the Ankara government to allow US troops to set up military bases on Turkish soil, President Bush directed the Pentagon in early December to provide up to $92 million in aid to six Iraqi opposition groups. In addition, the US and Qatari governments signed a pact on 12 December which enables a permanent US military presence in the Gulf state.

The announcement came as three of the Iraqi opposition leaders met in Tehran on 9 December, a week ahead of a planned gathering of opposition parties in London. The US has spent the last year attempting to broker an alliance between the two main Kurdish groups, the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the rival Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, which have been engaged in sporadic conflict in northern Iraq over the last decade. The leader of the third opposition group, the Iraqi National Congress, has not met the head of the KDP since 1996, when Iraqi troops intervened in a military stand-off between the two parties.