The Pentagon continues to prepare for a possible military assault in February, and the US has formally asked for help from its allies in Nato in the event of a war. Should the moment pass, the task of funding, supplying and maintaining the morale of more than 100,000 troops in the Gulf will begin to weigh heavily on the US administration as the onset of the harsh Iraqi summer approaches – in itself a natural deadline for military action. The size of the logistical task ahead appears to have impressed itself on the usually hawkish Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who – uncharacteristically – has tried to allay fears that the 15 January request to the UN means that war is imminent.

As its military preparations continue, Washington is feeling increasingly restricted by the current UN timetable for inspections. The 1999 UN Security Council resolution that created chief inspector Hans Blix’s UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) spells out a sequence of steps that could, in theory, lead to a suspension of the sanctions regime on Iraq as early as July. Following the 27 January report, Blix is required to make a further declaration in March on ‘key remaining disarmament tasks’ Iraq is required to fulfil – a report that US national security adviser Condoleeza Rica has tried to persuade Blix to abandon.

Blix cannot deviate from the UN schedule without council authorisation, and he has made it clear the work of the inspections team will not be completed before 27 January. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has also insisted that the inspections will have to continue for a considerable length of time before the Security Council can determine whether to give the mandate for military action. However, a lightning visit by Blix to the UN’s headquarters in New York in mid January, followed by calls on Washington and several European capitals, has impressed on the chief inspector the seriousness of the US military threat. ‘There’s still time for Iraqis to get themselves out of a very serious situation,’ he told reporters at the end of his tour. ‘But they need to do a good deal more to provide evidence if we are to avoid any worse development.’