WASHINGTON -- When all the other U.S. foreign policy nightmares from Bosnia to Beijing are settled, one man still is there to fill the void: Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
Defeated and isolated since the end of the Persian Gulf war of 1991, the 58-year-old "Butcher of Baghdad" still has enough strength to keep his well-armed neighbors on edge and the United States military at the ready.
Even now, the Pentagon is shipping extra arms and supplies to the gulf, in case it has to react rapidly to new aggression by the unpredictable Iraqi dictator. U.S. intelligence satellites and spy planes keep unblinking watch for any early warning that the elite Republican Guard and the regular army are on the move again.
President Hussein has only about half the conventional forces he commanded in 1990 when he invaded Kuwait, and the bulk of the weapons of mass destruction he was secretly developing have been detected and destroyed by the United Nations. Yet he remains a formidable foe credited inside the Pentagon with the capacity for painful surprise.
"We believe they are still trying to hide capabilities in missiles, chemical and, obviously, biological weapons," said a senior Pentagon official who studies Iraq closely. He accused the Iraqis of a "cheat and retreat" policy in disclosing to United Nations inspectors their programs [See Iraq, for develop-ing weapons of mass destruction.
Only yesterday, Charles Duelfer, part of the U.N. inspection team, said Iraq flight-tested chemical and biological weapons, in one case launching a chemical warhead aboard a Scud missile.
"The Scud missile warheads -- flight-tested -- was a new piece of information to us," Mr. Duelfer said. "Testing them is one thing, but a flight test is quite another."
Apart from weapons Iraq may have, the Pentagon is disturbed by the speed with which Mr. Hussein still can deploy his forces, as in the sudden move south toward Kuwait of thousands of Iraqi troops last October.
That prompted President Clinton to order U.S. ground troops, ships and planes to the area, at a cost of many millions of dollars. The Iraqis promptly withdrew.
Again last month, unusual troop movements in Iraqi garrisons led the United States to order extra storage ships of weapons and supplies closer to the Persian Gulf and to make rapid-reaction forces in the United States ready for short-notice deployment.
The fear this time was that Iraq might be preparing a strike against the Kurdish rebels in the north or reprisals against Jordan for granting asylum to the Iraqi dictator's two daughters and their husbands, who had defected.
To show its support of King Hussein of Jordan, after he welcomed the defectors, the United States dispatched an aircraft carrier to the eastern Mediterranean and went ahead with slated military exercises that called for a Marine landing in Jordan.
King Hussein's role in accepting the family fugitives and advocating change in Iraq is deemed by administration officials to be crucial to bringing Saddam Hussein's reign of terror to an end.
Under terms of the 1991 gulf war cease-fire, Iraq is required to disclose details of its arms development programs and to destroy all weapons of mass destruction before the embargo on oil exports, which costs Iraq up to $15 billion in lost sales yearly, will be lifted.
Iraqi compliance will be judged by Rolf Ekeus, the Swedish head of the U.N. special commission on Iraq. Mr. Ekeus has reported major progress on disarming the Iraqi nuclear, chemical and missile programs. But, until last month, the Iraqis refused to cooperate on their biological warfare program, initially denying it even existed.
Last month they finally confessed that they had armed some munitions with biological agents before the gulf war, but said they did not use them, apparently fearful of a U.S. nuclear response.
As Mr. Ekeus prepared to leave Iraq last month, he was told by Iraqi officials to go to a farmhouse where, he was informed, Iraqi security forces had found material he should see.
Just days earlier, the owner of the farmhouse -- Lt. Gen. Hussein Kamel Hassan, Saddam Hussein's son-in-law who was in charge of Iraq's secret weapons program -- had fled to Amman, Jordan, with his wife.
Mr. Ekeus was shown dozens of boxes relating to Iraq's nuclear, chemical and biological warfare and missile programs.
The sudden decision to hand over the documents, after years of delay and duplicity, is widely assumed to have been simply a pre-emptive strike by Mr. Hussein, anticipating that Hussein Kamel Hassan was about to reveal details of the biological weapons program anyway.
U.N. officials are sorting through the documents to check their validity, a process expected to take up to six months.