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Analysis: War With Iraq Sooner Than Later

By MARTIN SIEFF, UPI Senior News Analyst

WASHINGTON, Sept. 14 (UPI) -- When will the anticipated U.S. war on Iraq start? Two months ago, and in the face of all Conventional Wisdom to the contrary, we predicted in UPI Analysis, "Bet on this year rather than next and sooner rather than later." One day after President George W. Bush's tough talk to the United Nations, we repeat, "That is still the way to bet."

The president made very clear in his address to the UN General Assembly that if the United Nations did not authorize action against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein soon, then the United States would act unilaterally -- and soon. Iraq had to destroy all its arsenal of weapons of mass destruction, he said.

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And on Friday, the president rammed that lesson home. The UN had to force Iraq to accept the full US terms within "days and weeks, not months and years."

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"Days and weeks, not months and years." That sounds an awful lot like the unleashing of military action this fall, before the end of October and before the mid-term congressional elections in early November.

The Conventional Wisdom in Washington in recent months has been that no full-scale military attack is likely until well into next year. Of course, that may well be the case. Several detailed articles have appeared in major U.S. newspapers citing senior, unnamed Department of Defense officials as saying that this is their understanding.

However, there have been many straws blowing in a different wind. The Pentagon is pushing ahead with military deployments in the Middle East, especially in the Persian Gulf at a speed that suggests military action could start on a significant scale far sooner than January.

And last July, speaking on a PBS network documentary about Iraq, Richard Perle, the former assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration who is also immensely influential with civilian Pentagon hawks in this one, confidently predicted that when Bush gives his annual State of the Union message next year he would have "good news" to give the American people about Iraq. And by "good news" about Iraq he clearly meant the elimination of Saddam and his government by the U.S. armed forces.

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There are quite a number of straws in the wind to suggest that Perle, who enjoys immense influence with and access to Undersecretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, knows what he is talking about.

First, the British government, the only major European ally that is enthusiastically supporting the Bush administration in its determination to bring down Saddam by direct military means, is quietly acting as if a war will come this fall or winter rather than not until next year.

British security sources confirmed to United Press International during the summer that significant contingents of British troops are already being quietly withdrawn from peacekeeping forces in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Kosovo. The only reason this could be happening simultaneously at this time, they said, was in preparation for the expected operations against Iraq.

UPI veteran foreign correspondent and Middle East expert Claude Salhani, who covered the 1991 Gulf War from the front lines, also believes that the combination of seasonal physical conditions in the Middle East and political factors back in the United States point to a full-scale offensive against Iraq this fall, rather than later next year.

"If they go in, they will have a very short window of opportunity -- after the desert heat, before the rains in the mountains and before the U.S. elections," Salhani said two months ago. That window is still open now.

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The baking heat in the Arabian Desert and Fertile Crescent almost never eases up before October, especially in these days of global warming. But if significant U.S. forces go in through Turkey and Kurdistan in the north of Iraq, as seems increasingly likely, the usual winter heavy rains could significantly deplete the effectiveness of U.S. air support and also turn mountain roads and tracks into mud, slowing down heavy tracked vehicles.

As to the November midterm congressional elections, political leaders always react with outrage to the very idea that military operations are ever timed, or rushed, to conform to any such partisan and selfish domestic political considerations. But for an administration that has deliberately made its alleged effectiveness and resolution in the war on international terror its central appeal, the desire to have good news from Iraq, or at least progress on any anti-terror front, by November is obvious.

It is also striking that some of the U.S. media coverage making the case that the offensive will not be launched until next year, based key arguments on claims that Department of Defense civilian policymakers had been forced to slow down their hell-bent and ambitious timetable because senior Army military officer had said they needed more time in planning.

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But this Pentagon civilian leadership led by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz has been deliberately more contemptuous and unheeding of the concerns of infantry and armor experts in the regular Army than any other since the dark days of Robert McNamara during the Vietnam War more than 35 years ago.

Well-placed armed forces officers serving in the Pentagon have told UPI that the leaders of the U.S. Air Force, Navy and Special Forces are enthusiastic about undertaking operations against Iraq. Special Forces commanders in particular believe they can rapidly replicate their lightning and virtually casualty free operations in Afghanistan, these officers said.

However, senior Army and Marine officers do not share these gung ho attitudes and believe that operations against Iraq will require at least 200,000 regular troops and possibly more and will need to be planned and conducted very carefully, these sources said.

There is no question about which side of the debate Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and their Pentagon civilian hawks come out on.

This analysis is obviously not carved in stone. The attack on Iraq may not come until next year. But it was very clear from Bush's UN speech Thursday and further comments Friday that it will surely come.

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The president told reporters Friday he was "highly doubtful" that Saddam would meet UN demands. And the emphasis on getting UN Security Council compliance with U.S. wishes on Iraq within "days and weeks" rather than "months and years" is not the language of a President and administration seeking to gain time to defuse and avoid any confrontation. It is the language of gung-ho, confident and aggressive leaders who want to bring things to the boil.

Whether the war comes before November, as we still believe it may, or in the New Year, as the Conventional Wisdom has it, either way it will still surely come. When ambitious men with dreams of glory are in a hurry subtlety often gets left behind as often as prudence or plain common sense.

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