Although it insists it's committed to completing its acquisition of

U S West





stands to entertain a slew of offers from big international telcos if it can walk away.

That reality and the company's swashbuckling history suggest a number of rival big telcom firms may yet enter the fray, pressuring Qwest to walk away from the Baby Bell. That could make the action in Qwest and U S West shares, volatile already over the last week since rumors of talks with

Deutsche Telekom

(DT) - Get Report

leaked out, more interesting still.

The prospect of Qwest being in play cannot go unnoticed by a stellar list of interested parties eyeing the U.S. market, say analysts. In three years, the company has seen its value rise sevenfold as it created a new fiber-optic network, a lead in Internet data centers and a pan-European network.

"It should be no surprise that a company with this kind of growth in such a short history is going to attract suitors," says

Thomas Weisel Partners

analyst James Linnehan, who has a strong buy on Qwest and no rating on U S West or Deutsche Telekom. Weisel has no banking ties to any of these companies.

Though Deutsche Telekom, Europe's No. 1 telco, appears to be knocking the hardest on Qwest's door, analysts say other likely suitors include Japanese giant



, the world's largest telco, and

TST Recommends

France Telecom


. All of these companies were unavailable for comment.

The nagging question is how will Qwest release itself from its U S West agreement, which has already received shareholder approval. But Qwest didn't get to a merger agreement with U S West by honoring deals: Note its work in breaking U S West's deal with

Global Crossing


, for which Qwest paid a $400 million breakup fee. In fact, the threat of financial penalties may be a mere nuisance if it's wrapped into Qwest's costs of doing business.

"I don't think it was

CEO Joseph Nacchio's true intention to break up the U S West deal, but he did mean to get U S West folks to understand that there are avenues where the deal could be broken," says

Janco Partners

analyst Tom Friedberg, who has a buy on U S West and Qwest and no rating on Deutsche Telekom. Janco has no banking ties to any of these companies.

Deutsche Telekom's ardent pursuit of a U.S. carrier stems from its disappointing international strategy and its slipping hold on its home market since deregulation took effect in Germany in 1998. DT has rather forcefully stated that its growth objective would be to enter the U.S. market, and observers say a new-generation network such as Qwest's would be a plum acquisition.

Meanwhile, back at Qwest, merging with U S West was a questionable decision to begin with, say analysts. An Internet-type fiber-optic carrier with global aspirations had little in common with a copper wire-based, 14-state rural telco.

And U S West Chairman Solomon Trujillo's abrupt decision last month to not join the combined company, and the fact that he left $16 million in compensation on the table, perhaps bespeaks a deeper dissension in the merger process.

"I can't recall another case where someone has made that statement before the deal is done," says Michael Smith, an analyst at the

Stratecast Partners

division of

Frost Sullivan

, which consults for most of the major telecommunications companies. "For Trujillo to state in no uncertain terms that he and Nacchio couldn't come to a resolution of key differences is a clear indication of trouble."

Billionaire railroad tycoon and leading Qwest shareholder Philip Anschutz "is not someone who collects assets like trophies," concludes Friedberg. "If he can maximize his value and move on to the next thing, he will."