As expected, we are headed for another confrontation with Iraq over U.N. weapons inspections.

The last one, in February, cost $1.5 billion in military deployments to the Persian Gulf and nearly led to airstrikes by U.S. and British warplanes.They were averted by a last-minute deal between U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, who rescinded his expulsion of American arms inspectors in exchange for diplomatic accompaniment of inspections at so-called "presidential sites" and a promise to accelerate the inspection process so sanctions could be lifted by the end of the year.

A U.N. Security Council resolution passed in March threatened Saddam with the "severest consequences" if he did not comply with that agreement. But Saddam has never suffered anything more severe than wrist-slap missile attacks for seven years of ignoring or refusing to abide by U.N. resolutions governing the terms of his surrender in the 1991 gulf war.

He is gambling - correctly - that American enthusiasm for military action has waned, the Security Council is suffering "Iraq fatigue" and Arab support for the United States has been eroded by the 16-month stalemate in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

The Clinton administration withdrew one of its two aircraft carrier battle groups from the gulf in April, and Britain pulled out its only carrier. To reassemble that armada would be slow and expensive, with Turkey and Saudi Arabia again rebuffing attempts to use their bases as they did five months ago.

Saddam really has nothing to lose. He may not get sanctions lifted - in fact, he is convinced the United States will never let that happen as long as he is in power - but sanctions hurt the Iraqi people more than their dictator.

Meanwhile, he can widen the Security Council split between Britain and the United States on one side and Russia, China and France on the other. He can add to his stature in the Middle East as the only Arab leader willing to stand up to Washington. And he may even succeed in kicking out UNSCOM, the U.N. disarmament commission, before it takes away all his weapons of mass destruction.

That is why he ordered Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz to demand that the chief U.N. weapons inspector, Richard Butler, declare Iraq to be weapons-free and his mission accomplished. Butler refused and was to report to the Security Council on Iraqi non-compliance.

In June, Butler complained of a "consistent pattern of concealment" by Iraqi authorities who insisted that they had destroyed all illegal weapons but provided no proof. He voiced particular concern about VX nerve gas - inspectors believe Iraq produced far more gas than it claims to have destroyed - and biological weapons, which Butler termed the "black hole of our verification efforts."

Since then, British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook revealed that UNSCOM had uncovered new evidence showing 4,000 chemical weapons were unaccounted for. And Butler himself said his inspectors are far from ready to give Iraq a clean bill of health in biological weapons, which he termed "a mess."

Iraq denied even having a biological program until 1995. After that, it acknowledged having 8,000 liters of anthrax, which it destroyed. But UNSCOM says Iraq had enough undisclosed growth media to produce three times that much. Inspectors also have been unable to verify Iraq's claimed destruction of 19,000 liters of botulinum toxin.

The International Atomic Energy Agency says Iraq also continues to hide information about its nuclear weapons program. The IAEA's latest report, issued in July, found no prohibited activity but noted that "there remains in Iraq a considerable intellectual resource in the form of a cadre of well-educated, highly experienced personnel who were employed in Iraq's clandestine nuclear program" and could revive it at any time.

Short of military action, there is nothing the United Nations can really do to force Saddam to cooperate with its arms inspectors. All he has to do is hang on, watch the Security Council squabble and thumb his nose at the United States by smuggling oil to Turkey. Our NATO ally openly violates the embargo right beneath the noses of American jets enforcing it - with nary a peep from Washington.