There is no mystery about why President Saddam Hussein chose to inundate the United Nations with 12,000 pages listing every food- processing facility, tannery and dairy in Iraq. The Butcher of Baghdad gave away the game in his first interview in 12 years, granted to the Egyptian newspaper Al-Usbu'a last month. "No doubt, time is working for us," he said. "We have to buy some more time, and the American-British coalition will disintegrate because of internal reasons and the pressure of public opinion in American and British streets."
Saddam knows it will take a long time to wade through those 12,000 pages. And even when the "full and complete declaration" - actually, fully incomplete - is finally analysed, there will be endless debates about whether there is conclusive evidence of a "material breach". Even if weapons inspectors stumbled on a cache of nuclear weapons, this would not satisfy Saddam's defenders in Paris, who would no doubt claim these bombs were meant for heating cups of cocoa. The universal call now is for the Bush Administration to find evidence of "smoking missiles" that it can present in giant photos to the UN Security Council, just as the Kennedy Administration presented evidence of Soviet missiles in Cuba 40 years ago. But this is unlikely, to put it mildly. Much of Saddam's arsenal will be buried, or loaded in mobile laboratories that can scoot away at the first sign of inspectors.
Our best bet of catching Saddam red-handed will come if a timely defector pops up, but so far Hans Blix has shown little interest in using the powers granted him by the UN to interview Iraqi weapons scientists outside the country. Thus, many have pinned hope on finding an Iraqi "material breach" in those 12,000 pages. Even before intelligence analysts scrutinise this voluminous document, one probable violation stands out as clearly as a pile of anthrax at an aspirin factory.
The British Government report issued this year on Saddam's violations of UN resolutions noted that, after inspectors were last kicked out of Iraq in 1998, they were unable to account for vast stores of chemical and biological weapons. To be exact: 360 tonnes of chemical warfare agents, including 1.5 tonnes of VX nerve agent; 3,000 tonnes of precursor chemicals; growth media for biological agent production, sufficient for more than three times the 8,500 litres of anthrax Iraq admits to having made; and more than 30,000 special munitions to deliver chemical and biological weapons.
Amir Saadi, the general who prepared the latest report, claims that all these weapons were destroyed - but, oops, so was the documentation relating to their destruction. So we'll just have to take it on faith that Saddam has decided to divest himself of an arsenal he spent years and millions of dollars acquiring.
This is about as credible as believing that he has been making secret donations to the Hendon Reform Synagogue. But, again, the other members of the UN Security Council, especially Russia and France, seem unwilling, for their own cynical reasons, to believe anything bad about their buddy in Baghdad.
If George Bush and Tony Blair feel compelled to get the UN's written approval before attacking Saddam, they may well have to wait a long time - precisely what he intends. It's worth waiting a little longer; the US military won't be ready for war for at least a month. But rather than lose the window of opportunity that may close once summer settles over Iraq, America and her closest allies would be better advised to strike anyway, whether or not they have UN support.
Even if we don't have conclusive evidence today about Saddam's weapons of mass destruction, it's a safe bet we'll find plenty once we've occupied Iraq. After all, the last time we fought Iraq we found out that Saddam's nuclear weapons programme was much more advanced than previously assumed. Whatever Anglo American troops uncover this time will be sure to silence the critics. Maybe even those in Paris.
The author is Olin senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York