Bush first spelled out Washington’s tougher line on Iraq at the end of November, in the first flush of the success of his Afghanistan campaign. Asked what would happen if Iraq continued to refuse entry to UN weapons inspectors, Bush said bluntly: ‘He’ll find out.’ That was the cue for a chorus of calls for the US to finish off the job which the administration of George Bush senior started in 1990-91, only to lose its nerve at the crucial moment, with terrible consequences for the internal Iraqi opposition.

‘I do think the US should move, with the Iraqi opposition, to change the regime, which represents a cancer in the region,’ says Kenan Makiya, an Iraqi exile who has written a number of seminal works on the Baghdad regime. He says the key to the success of any such effort is the political commitment to structural change, rather than the purely military aspects. ‘The rhetoric must change on the Western side, and when that happens the rats will begin to leave the ship,’ he says. ‘Most Iraqis believe Saddam Hussein is there because the West wants him there; what people think has a crucial role to play.’

He says that once it becomes clear that the West is really intent on removing the regime, the opposition forces will gain strength. ‘What has been holding things back has been the ‘we don’t want to be in the business of nation building syndrome. That has now changed. Iraq is unique in the region in that it has a pro-Western population and an anti-Western regime. Let’s use that asset.’

Some US analysts have questioned the feasibility of such an enterprise, citing the strength of Iraq’s armed forces, compared with those of the Afghan Taliban regime, and the relative weakness of the Iraqi opposition. This could mean US ground forces being drawn into a potentially hazardous and drawn-out conflict inside Iraqi territory. ‘The argument that we can go it alone with this silk-tie opposition is minimalist, short sighted and dangerous at best,’ says Washington-based defence analyst Paul Sullivan. ‘This is a country of 22 million who have been savaged by sanctions and who have been cowed by their leadership yet have many sympathisers throughout the region and elsewhere. The Gulf war of 1991 occurred with the co-operation of many countries, but that will not be seen this time around. The sanctions have shattered the coalition.’

Sullivan argues that there is no case for attacking Iraq unless it can be proven that Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda has set up bases there, that Iraq was connected to the 11 September attacks, or that Iraq directly threatens the US with weapons of mass destruction. The task of removing Saddam Hussein should be left to the Iraqis, he says.

Between these polarised views, the administration is still keeping its counsel. Deputy defence secretary Paul Wolfowitz, regarded as the most hawkish on Iraq among senior officials, has indicated that other targets may have priority over Iraq in the present phase of the ‘war on terrorism’. The US State Department, said to be lukewarm at best at the prospect of attacking Iraq, delivered a blow to the credibility of the opposition-in-exile in early January when it suspended funding for the Iraqi National Congress over financial irregularities. The funds were subsequently restored, but it was hardly a vote of confidence in a movement supposed to be at the forefront of the campaign to oust Saddam Hussein.

If indeed the US is drawing back from confronting Iraq in the immediate future, the principal options that remain are to continue with the game of cat-and-mouse played between Iraq and the West in the framework of UN sanctions, or else to engage directly with Baghdad on a political level.

For Makiya, such an outcome is anathema. ‘The UN resolutions suppose the theoretical possibility of Iraq under Saddam Hussein becoming a normal UN member state,’ he says. ‘That is not an option: the regime has gone beyond the pale.’

However, the UN sanctions resolutions do provide the context in which the international community deals with Iraq, and it appears unlikely that the US would mount an overt campaign against the Baghdad regime without some form of cover from the international body. The most recent resolution – 1382, adopted at the end of November – provides for Iraq to import most civilian goods and services without the need for approval from the UN sanctions committee. However, the resolution includes a lengthy ‘goods review list’ of dual-use items Iraq is prohibited from importing, and the procedures for importing goods not on this list are still fairly cumbersome, as each item has to be screened by UN experts. The broader context for the UN sanctions is contained in resolution 1284, passed at the end of 1999. This establishes a new body – UNIMOVIC – to monitor and verify the elimination of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, and opens the way to an eventual lifting of sanctions if Iraqi compliance is established.

The implementation of resolution 1284 was stymied by Iraq’s refusal to let UNIMOVIC inspectors into the country and by the reluctance of the US to countenance detailed discussion to clarify what steps Iraq would need to take to get sanctions lifted. The new resolution has provided for clarification talks to be held, and Russia has taken it upon itself to try to resolve this issue and secure agreement on the application of the new trading system envisaged in resolution 1382 by a deadline of 30 May. If no progress is made by that date, the US would have the option of pressing for military action to be taken to enforce the relevant resolutions under chapter 7 of the UN charter.

The existence of a deadline adds an element of urgency to an affair that has dragged on for more than 10 years. The prospect of Iraq meekly agreeing to let the inspectors in because of the threat of US action appears unlikely, given Saddam Hussein’s record of courting confrontation. Baghdad is now striving to secure maximum support from the Arab states, focusing particularly on the Gulf. Saddam Hussein has started making friendly overtures towards Kuwait and Saudi Arabia – the two Arab states with the most reason to welcome a change of regime in Baghdad – and Foreign Affairs Minister Naji Sabri was due in Bahrain on 19 January, in a rare visit by an Iraqi official to a Gulf Arab state.

Baghdad is also set to host Arab League secretary-general Amr Moussa on 18-20 March. Talks will include how the Iraq question is to be tackled at the forthcoming Arab summit conference in Beirut on 25-26 March. Arab leaders are concerned at the possible popular reaction in their own countries should the US press ahead with a military campaign against Iraq. A number of Arab states – notably Egypt, Syria and Jordan – have also established strong commercial links with Iraq which could be jeopardised in the event of a military confrontation. Egypt, for example, exported goods worth an estimated $1,700 million to Iraq in 2001. The loss of earnings on this scale would be a serious blow given the precarious state of Egypt’s finances at the moment.

For all the Arab hand wringing, there is a clear determination in Washington not to let the Iraqi issue drift on, with Saddam Hussein getting ever closer to his goal of defeating sanctions. The US administration does not appear to be in a hurry to bring the Iraq issue to a head, but once the loose ends of the campaign against Al-Qaeda have been tied up, there could well be a change of tone.

Saddam Hussein and the close circle of blood relations that make up the core of the Iraqi regime have proved remarkably durable, and the Iraqi leader has taken steps over the past year to present his son Qusay as his successor. The coming period will provide a fresh test of the regime’s mettle as the US weighs up how far it is prepared to go to achieve the goal of effecting a change of regime in Baghdad.