In his last-ditch effort to preserve peace, U.N. Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar was "stiff-armed" by Saddam Hussein even more blatantly than Secretary of State James Baker was by the Iraqi foreign minister in earlier peace talks.

The 71-year-old former Peruvian diplomat sat next to an ornate phone in a government guest house for more than six hours Sunday - waiting to be called by the Iraqi president.It was the oldest trick in the political book - if you want to show utter contempt for someone's authority, keep him waiting - the longer the better. Perez de Cuellar, who has 50 years of diplomatic experience, waited and waited.

When the call finally came - after Saddam had met with a Japanese socialist delegation, met with Iraqi officials, had lunch and had a preparatory meeting - anything to kill time - the meeting with the secretary-general lasted for 21/2 hours.

But it was fruitless.

Afterward, de Cuellar, uncharacteristically candid, said that no progress was made whatsoever.

As the clocked ticked on the U.N. resolution deadline date, and the world hoped and prayed for the smallest gesture of hope from Saddam, it was unalterably clear that the time for diplomacy was over.

If there was suspicion in some quarters that Baker had not been conciliatory enough in his meeting with Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz - or that President Bush had needlessly offended the Iraqis by writing the allegedly inapproriate letter that Aziz refused to deliver to his chief - all that was washed under the bridge with the rude back of the hand given to the most objective intermediary possible - the secretary-general.

Now the unhappy but definitive question remains - no longer whether there is going to be war - but when the shooting will start.