Despite their access to unedited versions of the document, the other permanent members of the council remain disgruntled with the US’ handling of the dossier. ‘We are not happy that some people in Washington are trying to interpret in public the resolution in a way that is clearly prejudicing what inspectors say,’ the Russian representative to the UN, Sergei Lavrov, said on 17 December, stressing that the situation was ‘serious enough without provocations’.

UN chief weapons inspector Hans Blix was due to deliver his first assessment of the weapons declaration on 19 December, a day before the US administration was expected to make its own official pronouncement on whether the Iraqi declaration constituted a ‘material breach’ of the UN resolution – a possible precursor for war. Although the White House said that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had missed his ‘last chance’ to come clean on the weapons programmes, US officials indicated that the key trigger for action would be if Baghdad resists UN demands to bring Iraqi scientists out of the country for questioning.

The question that will preoccupy the governments of the Middle East in the next month is whether the US is playing an elaborate and dangerous game of bluff. Washington and its most likely military ally, Britain, continue to hold the threat of the ‘serious consequences’ mentioned in UN Resolution 1441 over Saddam Hussein’s head, with Pentagon officials confirming on 18 December that they had given preliminary approval for sending as many as 50,000 troops to the region.

The decision enables President Bush to order an attack against Baghdad by late January. Prime Minister Tony Blair also confirmed that the UK Defence Ministry has started a ‘contingency deployment’ of forces to the Gulf for a possible military campaign.