Is the United Nations Special Commission charged with eliminating Iraq's weapons of mass destruction - UNSCOM - an independent UN body or an American-directed intelligence operation designed to undermine Saddam Hussein?
The Iraqis, no surprise, say UNSCOM is a US plot. The Americans, no surprise, say it's an independent body carrying out UN Security Council Resolution 687, which set up the UNSCOM disarmament programme as part of the ceasefire arranged in 199 after a US-led coalition army drove Iraqi invasion forces out of Kuwait.
There's no doubt that UNSCOM is supported by US intelligence agencies. It is itself the world's most public intelligence operation.
The then acting Director of the CIA, George Tenet, told a Congressional committee in 1995 that the CIA's primary focus with regard to Iraq consisted of "supporting UNSCOM inspections". CIA cables released in connection with investigations into illnesses suffered by US troops who served in the Gulf War show that the CIA receives full details of UNSCOM operations. American U-2 high-altitude reconnaissance planes fly missions which UNSCOM has called "essential for the monitoring regime and for the investigation of new sites".
I don't know whether there's a shred of truth in Iraqi accusations that UNSCOM is manipulated by US intelligence. UNSCOM inspectors have certainly acted boorishly on at least a few occasions but whether this is a deliberate attempt to humiliate Iraqi officials or just the way military intelligence types behave, who knows.
What I do think is that the issue is probably irrelevant. The United States Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has made no secret that the goal of its policy is to remove Saddam Hussein from power, not just to implement the letter of the Security Council resolutions on Iraq. So it's been quite openly relying on an endless UNSCOM disarmament programme to justify the continued imposition of UN sanctions which have beggared most of the Iraqi population and are starving a million children.
Diplomats who've watched UNSCOM at work say that each of its Chairman's six-monthly reports to the Security Council are discussed in advance with the United States and other permanent members of the Council to agree the political spin to put in the final test - how much to emphasise progress, how much to highlight remaining problems.
The Iraqis have also made it very easy for the Americans by deliberately concealing information from UNSCOM for years at a time.
UNSCOM initially thought it was making progress. Then the man in charge of Iraq's weapons programmes, General Hussein Kamel Hassan, defected to Jordan in August 1995. Iraq, knowing Kamel would talk, immediately told UNSCOM that it had discovered he had been running a concealment operation which he had kept secret even from his colleagues, and they revealed details of a much bigger chemical and biological weapons programme than UNSCOM had suspected.
There are signs now, though, that the inspections and disarmament game might be drawing to a close. Almost anyone you talk to in the diplomatic community who isn't British or American says that UNSCOM can't go on for ever accusing the Iraqis of concealing information and materials but failing to prove it.
But will the US agree to start lifting sanctions? There are no American diplomats in Baghdad to talk to. But a journalist who's been in Washington recently said the US administration is still dead-set on removing Saddam Hussein (an idea which looks laughable in Baghdad - people are desperate to find their next meal, not organise some futile uprising against a man who has survived every threat to his power for 30 years). So even if the UNSCOM disarmament programme is drawn to a close, the US might move the goalposts and insist on Iraq improving its human rights record before sanctions could be lifted.
UNSCOM's next six-monthly report, due out later this week, will show where the US wants to go. The report will be full of technical detail about warheads dismantled and precursor chemicals unaccounted for. But don't kid yourself, the conclusion of the report and the decision on what to do about sanctions will be entirely political, and largely American.