It has fallen to the Bush administration's reluctant warrior to lead the world into a showdown with Saddam Hussein.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell will go before the U.N. Security Council one week from today to present the evidence against Hussein and make a last-ditch push for international support in the U.S.-led confrontation with Iraq.
The former four-star general faces a tough battle; the council is deeply divided. And hawks within the Bush administration are impatient.
Powell will arrive armed with extensive imagery from satellites and other sources showing Iraqi trucks hauling materials away from suspected weapons facilities shortly before U.N. inspectors arrived, U.S. intelligence sources said Tuesday.
"It's photographic evidence of the shell game the Iraqis have always employed," a senior U.S. intelligence official said. The imagery suggests extensive "sanitation of sites" and is bolstered by intercepted communications indicating a broad pattern of deception, the source said.
For all Powell's hawkish language of late, the new effort reflects his refusal to give up on diplomatic options or on building an international consensus, a course he first outlined over dinner with President Bush and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice on Aug. 5.
"Powell made the case that whatever we do will be stronger by going the U.N. route. He took the long view then, and he believes that still applies," one of the secretary's top aides said.
Now, as the confrontation enters a crucial phase, Powell is determined to ensure that the United States does not have to act without a U.N. mandate -- even though many in the Bush administration now advocate going it alone or with a few others. Although the administration increasingly speaks with a single threatening voice on Iraq, the battles over U.S. tactics are not over, U.S. officials say.
Although Bush repeated the warning in his State of the Union speech Tuesday night that the U.S. will "consult" but, if necessary, "lead a coalition to disarm" Hussein outside the umbrella of the Security Council, Powell still believes the U.S. has a shot at securing the council's consensus.
"Before the first resolution last fall, Powell told the National Security Council that if he called for a vote immediately, it'd be 14 to 1 against us, with even the Brits opposed. But he worked it patiently, and in the end the vote was 15-0 in favor of our resolution. He believes it's possible to do again," the aide added.
Squabbling at the U.N. Security Council dragged on for 12 weeks before the November vote on the resolution, but Powell is likely to have no more than a month to forge agreement this time from a much more divided Security Council, State Department officials say.
Other foreign ministers of Security Council member states are also expected to attend next week's session, European officials said late Tuesday.
Powell will use a couple of arguments. One will be based on intelligence, both recent and during the period after 1998 when U.N. inspectors were not in Iraq, to press the case of Baghdad's violations.
Intelligence officials refuse to discuss specific data, but Powell told European editors over the weekend that Washington has "a number of intelligence products" proving Iraqi violations that would soon be made available to its U.N. partners and possibly to the public.
He acknowledged, however, that the data may not be as dramatic as that offered by then-U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson during the Cuban missile crisis -- U.S. intelligence photographs showing Soviet missiles deployed in Cuba.
"Whether there will be a 'Stevenson' photo or 'Stevenson' presentation that would be as persuasive as Adlai Stevenson was in 1962, that I can't answer," Powell told editors at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, according to a transcript released Tuesday by the State Department.
Intelligence officials say the evidence includes a series of pictures taken over the past two years showing normal dump trucks being brought in from a port to Baghdad on railcars, driven to a military base, lined up outside a facility and converted to rocket launchers.
Other photographs show vehicles believed to be specially equipped for transporting biological or chemical weapons materials, the sources added.
U.S. officials are still wading through the material to determine what is usable and convincing -- and can be presented publicly by Powell without revealing U.S. capabilities to Iraqis as well as countries such as Russia and China.
And they acknowledge that some countries still may not be convinced because the U.S. intelligence can't demonstrate that Iraq still has weapons of mass destruction.
"There is not a smoking gun," the intelligence official said. "The only way you could do that would be to go in there and grab a weapon. That hasn't happened."
But the Bush administration got backing Tuesday from some congressional Democrats who have seen new evidence.
"The administration has evidence now that can change people's mind," Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) said on Capitol Hill. "I know there is enough circumstantial evidence that if there were a jury trial, I could convict you."
Powell will also try to persuade allies that they should participate in a large coalition against Hussein so they can be part of a postwar Iraq.
"He looks down the road and sees that whipping Saddam's backside is the easy part. He understands that the postwar period will be harder -- and how much easier it would be with a coalition, which is also a persuasive argument with a number of countries, particularly France and Russia, who don't want to be frozen out of postwar Iraq as it rebuilds," a State Department official said.
"It's also a persuasive argument at home," the official said.
More than any other top administration official, aides contend, Powell reflects U.S. public opinion, although his conclusions may be drawn from different personal experience.
"He's been shot at and caused people to die and he doesn't like either, so he wants to know every peaceful option short of war has been tried and failed first," the top aide said.
At the same time, however, Powell was also chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during Iraq's 1990-91 invasion and occupation of Kuwait.
For six months, he watched during myriad international efforts to peacefully prod Hussein out of the oil-rich Gulf sheikdom -- only to see the Iraqi leader pass up "opportunity after opportunity after opportunity" to avoid war, the aide said.
State Department officials acknowledge that Powell will have a tough sell because of widespread antipathy or skepticism abroad about U.S. policy on Iraq.
But they also credit him as a gamesman who maps out diplomatic strategy with the care and scope of a battle plan.
"He's masterful at the tactical retreat, but he also knows how to charge," the State Department official said.
Times staff writer Maggie Farley at the United Nations contributed to this report.
War of words on Iraq
The following statements were made by officials Tuesday:
"If Iraq begins to create problems for the inspectors, Russia can change its position and reach an agreement with the U.S. on developing different, tougher decisions in the U.N. Security Council."
Vladimir V. Putin
"The conclusion that Iraq is in material breach is an incontrovertible one."
Secretary Jack Straw
"We are still, of course, ready to cooperate further. We want to cover all gaps. We have done a lot. It is in our interest as a country to finish a few issues here or there, even if they are of minor importance."
Iraqi Lt. Gen. Amir Rashid Mohammed Ubaydi, advisor to Saddam Hussein
"The strike is coming unless Iraq abides by the resolutions."
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak