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March to war reaching point of no return

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By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN, Times Senior Correspondent

© St. Petersburg Times
published February 7, 2003

Israel's chief of staff put it best: "The elephants have begun to run and there's nothing that can stop them."

Gen. Moshe Ya'alon's comment reflects a growing consensus that war with Iraq is inevitable and near. President Bush all but declared war in his Jan. 28 State of the Union speech -- a third of which was devoted to Iraq. And Secretary of State Colin Powell virtually sounded the call to arms with Wednesday's presentation to the U.N. Security Council.

Saddam Hussein "will stop at nothing until something stops him," Powell said, adding Thursday that the Iraqi crisis will be resolved "within weeks."

Most experts say war is likely by early March. But they disagree whether the Bush administration could still back off, given the combative rhetoric and the huge military buildup in the Persian Gulf.

It's never too late to change course, says Larry Wortzel, vice president of foreign policy and defense studies at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington think tank.

"The fact you have forces flowing doesn't mean you can't flow them right back or divert them to the Korean peninsula," he said.

"Politically, I think the president has left himself enough flexibility that if there is some compliance out of Iraq, he can credibly not exercise a military option. ... The fact of the buildup should not dictate the action; it should be Iraq's behavior that dictates whether we act or not."

But Rosemary Hollis of London's Royal Institute for International Affairs fears the administration has passed the point of no return.

"That's the tragedy of the situation," she said. "Those who wish to avert a war are not sure there is any more they can do, and those who find themselves about to fight appear to have no alternative."

The experts disagree, too, about what would happen if the United States attacked without the support of France and Russia, key members of the Security Council. Some shrug off the dangers of the United States' "going it alone." Others warn that America could end up in a postwar quagmire in Iraq with few friends to help.

"It makes it much harder and increases the risks for the United States," Hollis said. "I think the assumption is that the United States will need allies to clean up afterward even if they will get in the way. This has to do with nation-building, which people on this side of the Atlantic think the United States is not terribly good at."

With 150,000 U.S. troops expected in the gulf by mid month, several factors point to war starting between Feb. 25 and March 9.

Hoping to capitalize on the cover of darkness, military leaders often launch campaigns when the moon is down. The moon goes into its dark phase around Feb. 19 and does not re-emerge until March 8.

Saudi Arabia, a key U.S. ally, is adamant that nothing happen until the end of the hajj, the annual pilgrimage that draws Muslims from around the world to the holy city of Mecca. The hajj winds down around Feb. 11 but it will take several more days for all to return home.

"From a Saudi perspective, it would be lightning igniting a gas tank to start a war with 2.5-million pious Muslims in place," said Michael Hudson, professor of international relations at Georgetown University.

Climate is a factor, too. By April, the temperature in Baghdad can surpass 100.

"It seems to me you would try pressure and inspections for longer if not for this fear that your window for going to war would close," Hollis said.

Throughout the military buildup, a major issue has been whether the United States should wait to attack until it has more support from other countries. France and Russia want to give weapons inspectors more time, as do most Arab nations.

In a visit to the Tampa Bay area earlier this week, former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak said those urging delay were "clumsy appeasers." He predicted most would fall in line behind the United States as war drew closer.

Despite its public recalcitrance, France has sent its only aircraft carrier to the eastern Mediterranean. "I don't think it's a coincidence where it's going, seeing there are about to be two U.S. carrier battle groups there," said Patrick Garrett, of, a Virginia think tank that studies defense issues.

Russia is unlikely to contribute to the military campaign because it doesn't have any ships that can get to the region within the next few weeks. Besides, "I don't know what they would add to the coalition other than a flag," Garrett said. "I think their military is more interested in Chechnya than they are worried about Iraq."

But once America strikes and the military situation in Iraq is stabilized, "the French and Russians are going to be racing each other to get their forces in there just as they did in Yugoslavia," said Wortzel of the Heritage Foundation.

He and Garrett agreed that France and Russia will also want to play a role in reshaping postwar Iraq. Both countries already do considerable trade with Iraq under the oil-for-food program and have contracts to develop Iraqi oil fields.

They also want to be involved "because they are major powers," Wortzel said. "Russia was a superpower and it's still a major power. France is being obstinate so it can demonstrate it still has some influence."

Wortzel notes that the United States already has a considerable number of allies. Britain, Spain and seven other European countries have expressed support for removing Hussein, and Turkey's Parliament voted Thursday to let the United States start renovating ports and air bases, a first step toward opening the way for U.S. combat troops.

Jordan, Qatar and several other Arab countries also are allowing American forces to use their bases.

And so the countdown continues. even has a clock on its Web site predicting the days, hours and minutes to war. As of today: 21 days.

"I think (war) is inevitable, but not irreversible,"' Garrick said. "I think at any moment they could decide they want to go ahead and bring the troops home, but I give the chance maybe one in a million. It's the central foreign policy of the U.S. government to remove the "axis of evil' in which the big evil is Iraq. I think this administration has staked its foreign policy credibility on the idea Saddam has got to go."

-- Susan Taylor Martin can be reached at

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