THOUGH THEY RECOGNIZE that Iraq has not complied with the United Nations Security Council's last and supposedly "final" disarmament order, a number of governments nonetheless have suggested that the U.N. arms inspections should continue. Reports by the chief inspectors last week, they say, showed progress: Saddam Hussein has destroyed a few dozen illegal missiles and become incrementally more cooperative in other areas. The inspectors suggest that if they are allowed to proceed, they might be able to complete their work in a few months. So why not extend their mandate, as France, Russia and Germany propose, rather than launching a war?

The answer to this reasonable-sounding question is not that the U.S. and British troops poised on Iraq's borders cannot be kept waiting, or that weather or some other factor dictates immediate action. In fact, if a delay of a few weeks, now being explored by Britain as part of a compromise formula for a new Security Council resolution, would serve to overcome the current rift in the council, or at least add to the international coalition confronting Iraq, then it would be worth the wait. But it's important to understand that any extension of the inspectors' mandate would only delay, not prevent, a conflict. That's because the three months of inspections so far have demonstrated what arms control experts have been saying all along: that without a strategic decision by Saddam Hussein to fully cooperate, it is not possible even to locate Iraq's most deadly weapons, much less ensure disarmament.

That Iraq's dictator has failed to make that decision has been obvious since Dec. 8, when he submitted a declaration to the Security Council asserting that he had no chemical and biological arms. You don't have to listen to the Bush administration to regard that as a lie; even French officials say they believe Iraq still has those arms. The declaration served to detach the inspection process from reality. The inspectors have been put in the position of verifying that Iraq has no weapons -- by definition an impossible task -- rather than overseeing the destruction of those that exist. The only exceptions are the few score surface-to-surface missiles that Iraq could not avoid declaring -- but the lethality of these arms is minor compared with the probable hidden stores of anthrax, sarin and VX nerve agent.

So why do the inspectors sound so upbeat? Chief U.N. inspector Hans Blix and International Atomic Energy Agency head Mohamed ElBaradei are international civil servants who are desperate to prove that agencies like theirs can be effective. Their reports to the council have been constructed as arguments for continued inspections, rather than as reports on Iraq's compliance. Mr. Blix has dodged repeated requests that he judge Iraq against the terms of Resolution 1441; instead, he has retailed indications of "progress" on such issues as interviews with scientists, which in turn are hailed by some as proof that the "inspections are working." Such discussions have a surreal quality, because they ignore the elephantine fact that Iraq has still not disclosed its weapons. Mr. Blix doggedly pursues "unanswered questions" about huge stores of unaccounted-for materials -- but in reality, his team has little of substance to do. It can only wait to see if Iraq will be more forthcoming, or hope for a lucky break that will lead it to hidden stockpiles.

Mr. ElBaradei has responded to similar problems by turning on Iraq's accusers. In his first report to the council, Mr. ElBaradei argued against the logic of Resolution 1441, saying that inspectors could be used to contain Iraq even if Saddam Hussein didn't cooperate. He has used his two subsequent presentations to dispute evidence offered by Britain and the United States, while coming close to declaring Iraq free of any nuclear program. Last Friday, Mr. ElBaradei made headlines by denouncing one secondary piece of evidence, about an alleged Iraqi attempt to obtain fissile material from Niger, as a forgery. But the allegation is not central to the case against Saddam Hussein, and it did not even form part of Secretary of State Colin Powell's recent presentation to the Security Council. Such diversions have lamentably become the substitute for U.N. oversight of real Iraqi disarmament; weeks or even months more of them may help unify the international community, but can yield little else.