WASHINGTON (AP) _ No matter how hard or often the United States and its allies strike at Iraq, President Saddam Hussein manages to bounce back and ratchet up his defiance of the West.

He has so often defied predictions of his demise, that the United States has been forced to reluctantly acknowledge that the road to his removal will be long and frustrating.

Meanwhile, Iraqi resilience and ingenuity has fueled the engine of massive reconstruction since the country was pummeled by allied bombs in the 1991 Gulf War.

''They have been working on the reconstitution of their forces ever since the war,'' said Pentagon spokesman Bob Hall. ''Virtually every week that goes by, they're probably in better shape than they were before.''

Iraq's reconstruction is more pronounced in civilian projects than military ones.

The Iraqi military is about 40 percent its size and capability before the war with the U.S.-led coalition - Iraq was until then the world's fourth largest military force - and it has lost most of its nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons and missiles.

Still, Iraq has the biggest armored force in the Gulf - more than 2,000 operational tanks, U.S. officials say. And it not only has resumed production of new tanks, it is also believed to be manufacturing munitions, despite an international arms and economic embargo that has cut off the flow of most goods to Iraq.

The ability to reconstruct even under the sanctions is ''testament to the competence and skill of the work force and the regime's considerable expertise in smuggling,'' said Laurie Mylroie, an Iraq expert at the Washington Institute for Near-East Policy, a think tank.

Roads, dams, bridges, power grids, oil refineries, public buildings - many have been restored since being damaged or destroyed by six weeks of bombings.

Nonetheless, the Iraqi people are feeling the bite of the sanctions. Food, medicine and fuel are often in short supply.

The headquarters of the Iraqi intelligence service, partly destroyed by U.S. cruise missiles on Saturday, also was severely damaged by allied bombers during the war - and rebuilt since.

An industrial complex hit by U.S. cruise missiles last January in the Baghdad suburbs already has been largely rebuilt, according to a U.N. inspector who saw the Zafraniyeh facility.

Restored and even strengthened since the war is Saddam's pervasive secret police, which employs spies and informants to keep Iraqis in line and make sure they don't plot against the president.

''We have no illusions about the strength of Saddam and his apparatus of terror there,'' Vice President Al Gore said Sunday on CBS.

Saddam's ability to quell opposition has given him confidence to provoke repeated confrontations with the United States and the United Nations.

Even as he declared a cease-fire in honor of Clinton's Jan. 20 inauguration, Saddam's anti-aircraft guns fired for three successive days at U.S. planes patrolling the no-fly zone over southern Iraq.

There followed repeated incidents in which Iraqi radars electronically locked onto U.S. aircraft, several cases of actual gunfire, and a series of U.S. retaliatory bombings against radar and anti-aircraft facilities.

Similarly, as a token of his so-called charm offensive toward Clinton, Saddam began cooperating with U.N. inspectors monitoring the destruction of Iraq's weapons on mass destruction. At the same time, his troops and agents were harassing the inspectors on a daily basis.

Saddam has since resumed his outright challenges to the U.N., in the latest case refusing to allow cameras to be installed at missile test sites to ensure that he was not violating an international prohibition against his production of medium- and long-range missiles.

Iraq also has persistently violated other U.N. resolutions prohibiting the oppression of its Kurdish and Shiite citizens.

During the past year, the government has sponsored nearly 60 terrorist attacks, including bombings and assassinations, against foreign relief workers and Kurdish residents in northern Iraq, according to Mylroie's accounting.

The United Nations has also documented Iraqi atrocities toward Shiite dissidents living in marshlands in southern Iraq, including a food embargo and a draining of the marshes designed to allow easier access to army tanks.

Iraq has also refused to hand over the names of foreign suppliers who helped it build its nuclear weapons program, refused to account for Kuwaitis missing or detained since the war, and refused to return hundreds of millions of dollars it took from Kuwait during its invasion.