America last night invoked the trigger phrase for war on Iraq, accusing Baghdad of being in "material breach" of its UN obligations to fully disclose its weapons arsenal.
In the Bush administration's first detailed pronouncements on Iraq's dossier on its nuclear, chemical and biological weapons program, the US secretary of state, Colin Powell, said Baghdad had missed its final chance to avert a war.
With the deployments currently under way, President George Bush could go to war soon after January 27, when the chief weapons inspector, Hans Blix, is to report to the UN security council on the progress of the inspections.
"Iraq's non-compliance and defiance of the international community has brought it closer to the day when it has to face the consequences," Mr Powell said. "This declaration fails totally to move us in the direction of a peaceful solution."
A bellicose atmosphere was also evident in London where the foreign secretary, Jack Straw, warned that Iraq was inching towards conflict. "There has already been one trigger pulled. They now, in a sense, have their finger on the other trigger," he said.
Although Mr Powell and other US officials were scathing about the dossier - describing it as a rehash of information already provided to the UN, or carbon copies of previous reports by weapons inspectors - he said Washington's first recourse would be to hold Saddam Hussein to an even higher standard of compliance with the inspectors now in Iraq.
The weapons inspectors can also expect to come under increasing pressure, with the US and Britain calling for more regular reports to the security council. The next report from the inspectors is expected in early January.
If President Saddam wants to make amends for the deliberate omissions in the report, Mr Powell said, he must accept an even more aggressive inspections regime, which will turn its attentions to removing Iraq's intellectual elite - its scientists - from the country where they will be interviewed on developments at nuclear, chemical and biological weapons installations.
The consequences for failing to do so were made plain. Pentagon officials said that as many as 50,000 extra US forces will be on their way to the Gulf by early January.
The auguries that Iraq would live up to the standard of "pro-active co-operation", as described by British officials yesterday, were far from encouraging.
"There has been very little given in the declaration by way of evidence concerning weapons of mass destruction," Mr Blix said yesterday, after briefing the security council on Iraq's declaration.
Nuclear experts say the areas of omission are huge. Iraq has supplied no material on its pursuit of a nuclear weapons program since 1991.
The report also fails to address concerns raised by UN weapons inspectors more than three years ago about Iraq's stocks of mustard gas, anthrax and nerve agents.
Mr Powell homed in on these lapses yesterday, saying that some 26,000 tons of anthrax remained unaccounted for, and that Iraq had given no satisfactory explanation for its efforts to procure reinforced aluminum tubes that could be used for uranium centrifuges.
Diplomats said yesterday that the toughening stand from Washington served two purposes: genuine preparations for a war, as well as stepping up the pressure on Saddam Hussein in the hopes that it will prompt further disclosures on his weapons program
Although nuclear experts had not expected Iraq to make a total disclosure, the lapses force Mr Blix to seek other sources of guidance for his inspectors as they attempt to scour Iraq.
The focus of the weapons inspectors - and for Washington - now shifts to interviews with Iraqi scientists. US officials believe that defectors from the scientific community have in the past proven the best sources of information about Iraqi weapons programs.
Mr Powell said US experts intend to mine the Iraqi declaration further, winnowing out information on possible illegal weapons development from the sections supplied by the Iraqi government on its allegedly peaceful weapons programs.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002