The puppet master

The US thought it could swat Saddam like a fly. But the Iraqi dictator has manoeuvred so cleverly th

The parade into Washington seemed almost limitless, with the politicians of the world flying in at the behest of one Saddam Hussein. The foreign ministers of France, China and Mexico were here, as demonstrators chanted "Hey ho, hey ho, we won't fight for Texaco". On 20 January, it was the turn of the Germans and Russians to visit the State Department. Then the Saudis, Turks and Egyptians moved into the unaccustomed limelight after they had helped to inspire stories that war could be averted by sending Saddam Hussein into exile. On 30 January, it will be Britain's turn, when Tony Blair flies into Camp David. And throughout all this, we are told, Saddam is sleeping peacefully and never needs sleeping pills.

As well might be the case. Not so long ago, the mighty US was planning to use the military equivalent of a fly-swatter on that distant little troublemaker Saddam; now he has used the UN Security Council to outmanoeuvre them politically and, so far, militarily. He has outfoxed Hans Blix, director of the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission, by appearing absurdly over-unctuous and solicitous - while being in reality uncooperative and unhelpful. Saddam has Americans continuously debating the one thing on which they were virtually unanimous six months ago - that Iraq should be attacked. Saddam has succeeded in putting almost everyone else in the world at each other's throats, competing with apparently newfound venom against each other. It is as though he were a genial puppet master, pulling the strings and watching results unfold with sublime ease.

As the split in the UN opened, so the positions of the world's powers became clear - and increasingly estranged from those of the US. "I think we should respect their opinion and work," the Chinese said of the UN inspectors. The French foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, was more forthright: "We believe today that nothing justifies military intervention." As the US defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, was telling the world that time was running out, the German foreign minister pronounced the inspections "a success". The US's "allies" thus fractured in a welter of ill-feeling: the only sign of support for the US, reported one news agency, came from "Britain, with the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, telling the Security Council that Britain's patience was not limitless".

Even US talks with Turkey, in which the US hoped to get agreement to station 80,000 troops around that country's border, have fallen through. And the view taken by Colin Powell, the secretary of state, of all this is opaque. There is no point continuing inspections, he now says, when "it doesn't make any difference how long the inspection goes on, because they're not going to get at the truth". This has been the position all along of the US right, yet Powell is supposed to be the dove. Increasingly, however, the State Department finds it hard to play its role in the US administration's internal battle between cowboys and wimps.

The fractures among the western "allies" are best illustrated by contrasting the French and the British. President Jacques Chirac says: "It's the responsibility of the Security Council and the Security Council alone to make a decision regarding the report and also the requests of the report. If one country or another were to take a step that did not conform to what I had just said, it would put itself purely and simply in contravention of international law." Now look at what Tony Blair says: "We should remain the closest ally to the US, and as allies influence them to continue broadening their agenda . . . bluntly, there are not too many countries who wouldn't wish for the same relationship as we have with the US and that includes most of the ones most critical of it in public." So yah, boo, sucks to the French.

And so it boils down to naked national self-interest, at least for Britain. The UK, out on a limb, has committed a much higher proportion of ground troops - a quarter of its army - than the US. The deployment on 20 January of 37,000 US ground troops, spearheaded by the Texas-based 4th Infantry Division, was the highest since the additional 62,000 troops on 13 January. But troop numbers are still insignificant, as far as the US is concerned. If President George W Bush goes ahead and commits the US to action without the support of the UN (as he may well do in his State of the Union address on Tuesday), what will be a relatively small matter militarily for the Americans becomes an enormous one, both politically and militarily, for the British. And the strategic decisions, in case we had any doubt, will be made in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue rather than 10 Downing Street.

Sir Jeremy Greenstock, the British ambassador to the UN, says that particular times and dates do not matter, but that time is running out for Saddam Hussein. Expect "time is running out" to become new Britain's mantra as Blair visits Camp David. Powell is defensive of Britain's role in Iraq: "My job as secretary of state is to listen to our friends and see if we can find a way to accommodate the positions they bring to us," he says. "Prime Minister Blair and Jack Straw are never shrinking violets when it comes to laying forth the position of Her Majesty's government. And we're trying to listen. To characterise Prime Minister Blair as a poodle is an absolutely absurd and silly charge."

That may be true. But it is not for international, still less military, reasons that the US wants the British on board. It is all a question of US domestic politics. The administration's position is greatly complicated by opinion polls showing that while there is widespread domestic support for war against Iraq, that support dips sharply - from 81 per cent to 39 per cent - if other countries are known to be against the war. This is not so much a case of a newfound US humility or commitment to multilateralism. Rather, it is the return of the Vietnam syndrome. During the Vietnam war, Americans came to question, not so much the morality of the war, but why 59,000 Americans should be dying so far from home. Attitudes to Iraq are rather like that. Although there would be great disappointment in the boardrooms and across the plains if there were no war, there would also be a sense of inward relief. "What are we doing in Iraq?" a former administration official asked me plaintively the other day.

As Blix delivers his interim report, Blair goes to Washington and Bush make his State of the Union address, various strands are pulling together to show how Saddam Hussein is still managing to influence domestic and international politics. From how the French conduct themselves with infinite diplomatic politesse in New York to how the local politician is playing it, Saddam is still pulling the strings, apparently with panache. His public relations machine is second to none: it blithely dismissed two 122mm rocket warheads as "isolated, overlooked items" that the US was condemning as "troubling" and convinced the rest of the world that the 11 others found at the Ukhaider ammunition storage area, 90 miles south-west of Baghdad, were an irrelevant part of old stock.

France is meanwhile chairing the Security Council this month, and on 21 January, de Villepin said he would use a meeting of European Union foreign ministers in Brussels this month to seek a united stance. "We will not associate ourselves with military intervention that is not supported by the international community," he said. "Using force like that would only be a last resort assuming all other possibilities are exhausted." Other EU diplomats say they are most worried that matters will be dictated by the best weather conditions for a US military strike.

The US media already considers the country at war, and is full of stories of rugged soldiers leaving behind their loved ones. Americans, notoriously insular and ignorant of the outside world, are having to get used to Abroad and to learn about new places, such as Qatar - or Cutter or Cudder, as they call it in puzzled tones. But with Saddam playing his role so skilfully, it is still impossible to tell when the war will start, and far from certain what its eventual outcome may be.

See Russell Martin on the lessons of Guernica, The Back Half