WASHINGTON, Dec. 15 (UPI) -- A number of signs around Iraq and the Washington Beltway point to more ominous views that the Bush Administration is gearing up for "phase two" of the war on terror - an attack aimed to bring about the demise of Saddam Hussein.
Recent political and military shuffling are leading several Middle East analysts to believe that the United States will most likely follow up on threats made by President George W. Bush in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks; that Saddam should allow international arms inspectors back or face the consequences.
Bush did not specify what would happen should Saddam fail to accept the return of foreign monitors who were keeping tabs on his biochemical and nuclear arms programs, and who were ordered out shortly before the start of the Gulf War in 1990.
Given the recent easy victories in Afghanistan, Bush appears to be swayed by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who is believed to support the notion of taking on the Iraqi dictator and finishing the job started by the current president's father in 1990-91, when a U.S.-led coalition forced Saddam out of Kuwait.
Riding the winds of their Afghan success, "The war party in the administration led by Rumsfeld and (Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul) Wolfowitz are now in full ascendant, and Powell, the long-time voice calling for restraint and the avoidance of war with Iraq has lost credibility and the president's ear," writes my UPI colleague Martin Seiff.
This leads "the war party" to believe they can apply the same blueprint to Iraq; support the Iraqi National Congress, form a loose coalition consisting of the INC, the Shia in the south and Kurds in the north, use limited bombing of Iraqi facilities and army positions and apply pressure by a renewed U.S.-led coalition to force Saddam out of power.
The bad news for the United States is that they are having a hard time convincing their allies to join the battle. To date, both France and Spain said they would not participate in a fight against Iraq. Britain, a strong supporter of the United States and an active participant in Afghanistan, is non-committal. It remains uncertain at this time if Prime Minister Tony Blair would follow Bush in an Iraqi expedition.
The easy fall of Kabul and the sudden flight of the Taliban might well lead some to believe they could go for a repeat performance in Baghdad and score another easy victory. But Saddam is not Mullah Omar, and Iraq is not Afghanistan, and the costs in human lives would be far greater on all sides.
There is also the question of the reaction from the Arabs who sat quietly on the sidelines as the U.S. pursued bin Laden and his terrorists.
The reaction will be different when images of bombed Iraqi cities start appearing on Al Jazeera and CNN.
"Arabs are indifferent to what happens to Osama bin Laden; they know that al Qaida is only concerned with one holy land: Saudi Arabia," writes Dominque Vidal in Le Monde. Eric Rouleau, another old Middle East hand writing for Le Monde says, "The leaders of the Gulf fear that Washington will go after ... countries deemed subversive, especially Iraq. If these are the intentions of the United States, the abyss that separates the West from the Arab-Muslim world will deepen and the worst is to be feared."
The reputed dove in the Bush tight circle, Powell, who some analysts believe does not support armed action against Iraq, has been further distanced with the failure of peace prospects in the Middle East between Israel and the Palestinians. His special envoy to the region, former Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, has been unable to gain any ground in his quest for a rapprochement between the warring factions. In fact, quite the reverse happened, with several bombs being detonated by suicide bombers while Zinni was there, undermining his very attempts to bring about a cease-fire.
Among the factors contributing to the drums of war beating louder at this time is the Pentagon's Central Command "temporarily" moving its HQ to Kuwait, followed by the Dec. 6 visit by U.S. Army chief of staff Gen. Eric Shinseki to the desert sheikhdom.
"Baghdad's real nervousness is that the M1A2 Abrams tanks, the M2A2 Bradley infantry fighting vehicles, the artillery and all the other U.S. military hardware pre-positioned in Kuwait has just been tuned up, tested and reinforced," reports UPI's Martin Walker, in his Dec. 12 edition of UPI Hears.
"The giant military warehouses stock the equipment to fit out an armored division, allowing an airlift of troops from the U.S. to land in Kuwait and be in action within hours. Task-Force 1-34 from the 1st Infantry Division in Fort Riley, Kansas, (that saw action in Iraq during Desert Storm) has put the equipment into fighting condition, and logged an average 96.1 percent operational rate," continues UPI Hears.
Kuwait's defense minister Sheik Jaber Mubarak al Sabah, however, says, "This is not aimed at Iraq."
Nevertheless, a Kuwaiti source told United Press International that a U.S. State Department delegation headed by senior state department official Ryan Crocker is currently visiting northern Iraq, an area not under Baghdad's control, in an effort to rally President Saddam Hussein's foes against him. This is the first such visit by Washington officials to this region since February. Saddam's government lost control of the Kurdish-ruled region since the 1990-91 Gulf War.
A bipartisan group of 10 key members of Congress recently sent a letter to President Bush encouraging him to set his sights on Saddam Hussein's regime as the next target in the war.
"As we work to clean up Afghanistan and destroy al Qaida, it is imperative that we plan to eliminate the threat from Iraq," they noted.
President Bush and other senior officials have repeatedly addressed the possibility of carrying the war on terrorism into Iraq, and other countries that support terrorism. Iraq figures high on that list and is widely believed to support terrorists.
Saddam has been funneling finances and, some believe, limited military resources to the Islamic militias in Palestine. He has been known to pursue a biochemical program aimed to produce weapons of mass destruction. In March 1988 he used chemical weapons on the Kurds in the town of Halabja, (70,000 population) killing about 5,000. His nuclear facility in Osirak was destroyed by Israel, who feared Saddam would use nuclear weapons against it.
Does Saddam represent a threat today? There have been reports that Mohammad Atta, one of the Sept. 11 ringleaders and hijackers, met with Iraqi intelligence agents in Prague, but Scott Ritter, a former American arms inspector who led a number of missions in Iraq, argues that Iraq is no threat.
On the other hand, Amatzia Baram, head of the Jewish-Arab Center and the Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Haifa and a prominent authority on Saddam says, "Saddam is a first-class menace to everyone and particularly the United States and Israel, in that order."
So are in fact the war drums beating for Baghdad? As one long-time Mideast observer noted, "Of course they are." Time will tell if that is the case.