THE INSPECTION PROCESS in Iraq, regrettably, is proceeding according to past form, both on the ground and at the United Nations Security Council. While feigning openness before television cameras, Saddam Hussein's regime has resorted to the same tactics of evasion it practiced all during the 1990s. Chief U.N. inspector Hans Blix reported Thursday that the weapons declaration Iraq was required to submit last month was "practically devoid of new evidence"; that some of the information it provided about nerve gas was contradicted by documents already in the inspectors' hands; and that Baghdad had not "made a serious effort" to supply the names of its weapons scientists. Consequently, and predictably, Mr. Blix reported that the inspectors had not found "any smoking gun" proving Iraq's possession of weapons of mass destruction. Opponents of action against Saddam Hussein, in turn, seized on Mr. Blix's phrase, arguing that unless such absolute proof is discovered by his team, the Security Council will have no option but to delay any decision on enforcement while extending the inspections indefinitely.

This is the same script that played out for seven years after Iraq's disarmament was first ordered in 1991, allowing Saddam Hussein to evade compliance before finally forcing the inspectors out. Because of that record, and because everyone knows that weapons can be successfully concealed, the Bush administration insisted that U.N. Resolution 1441 be framed differently: not as the mandate for another prolonged detective exercise but as a "last chance" for Iraq to voluntarily comply with past resolutions by disclosing its arsenal and cooperating in its destruction. The resolution says that a false disclosure, coupled with a failure of cooperation, requires the Security Council to convene and consider "serious consequences." Mr. Blix's report makes clear that these terms have been met; the discovery or non-discovery of weapons by the inspectors, under the resolution's terms, is irrelevant. Barring a radical change in Saddam Hussein's behavior in the next two weeks, the council ought to respond to Mr. Blix's first full report on Jan. 27 by drawing the obvious conclusions and following its own, unanimously approved outline for action. The British government and some in the administration are arguing for postponement, mostly for political reasons. That would risk dispatching 1441 to the same dustbin where lie the council's previous 16 resolutions on Iraq.

Senior Bush administration officials accept this logic; they also realize that, as a practical matter, the United States will find it hard to lead a successful military campaign -- or stabilize Iraq afterward -- unless it can convince most Americans and most U.S. allies that war is justified. This, in turn, will almost certainly require some public demonstration of the facts behind such statements as that made Thursday by White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, who said U.S. officials "know for a fact that there are weapons" in Iraq. As Mr. Blix's report made clear, the inspectors now are unlikely to produce such evidence, given the Iraqi stonewalling: In fact, they may not be able to talk to the people who have it. Mr. Blix said the list of weapons scientists that Baghdad provided did not even include all the names of those previously identified. And few are likely to speak openly following the sinister public announcement by the general who heads Iraq's weapons monitoring directorate that "nobody is ready" to leave the country for an unsupervised interview with the inspectors, as provided by 1441.

Perhaps a final tactical move will flush out the needed evidence. There is talk of submitting a list of specific questions to Baghdad, and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell told The Post that the administration has been feeding the inspectors intelligence. Should such a move fail, the Bush administration must shoulder the obligation to make clear to Americans and to the world what it knows about Saddam Hussein's arsenal. There may be no satellite photographs of smoking guns, but what there is should be made known, coupled with a demand that the Security Council hold Iraq to account for its material violation of Resolution 1441. The alternative is to slip into a game of charades that has been performed before -- one that Saddam Hussein has proved he can win.