Iraq war not seen as imminent despite U.S. rhetoric

By Alistair Lyon,LONDON, Reuters

Despite the bellicose drumbeat sounded by the Bush administration, U.S. plans remain shrouded in uncertainty and a war with Iraq could still be months away.

Military and security experts said they saw few signs yet of the kind of buildup that would be required for a ground invasion of Iraq, or even of a consensus on what shape it should take.

Several voiced bafflement at the lack of clarity on the part of President George W. Bush’s administration and the apparent splits within it, even allowing for deliberately mixed signals aimed to confuse the enemy and conserve an element of surprise.

“There is lots that needs to be worked through and the planners would need a degree of agreement, for example between the Pentagon and State Department, on what they would be required to do,” said Sir Timothy Garden, a military expert at London’s Royal Institute of International Affairs.

“The mechanics are such that if you want to launch a serious operation with a significant ground component, you can’t do it very quickly,” he said. “Everyone I talk to says there is no direction yet in terms of planning anything in particular.”

U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney raised the temperature sharply this week with speeches detailing the administration’s case for strong action to remove Iraqi President Saddam Hussein before he can use his alleged arsenal of weapons of mass destruction against the United States or its allies.

His remarks drew criticism from many of America’s Arab and European allies dismayed at the prospect of an invasion of Iraq, especially one lacking specific U.N. sanction, at a time when Israeli-Palestinian violence is already inflaming the region. No lead from bush

But with debate raging in Washington and around the world, Bush himself made little move to clarify his own thinking.

Asked about a planned conference of Iraqi dissidents to elect a U.S.-backed government-in-exile next month, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said on Thursday such talk “would be premature” because Bush had not decided to use force.

Conventional wisdom holds that the ideal timing for a big invasion involving up to 250,000 troops would be between November and March so that soldiers swathed in protective chemical suits would not have to fight in searing summer heat.

“I don’t think a war is imminent, but it will be in the next six months,” said Paul Beaver of Jane’s Defense Weekly. “The buildup could well start in October and we will see things happening in January or February.”

Some analysts say earlier action would be possible if Bush opted for a smaller strike force, backed by air power, that would race to Baghdad bypassing Iraq units in the provinces.

Another option requiring a relatively short buildup would be to rely on withering air strikes and the deployment of special forces to back Iraqi rebels primed to take on Saddam’s forces.

London-based Iraqi analyst Mustafa Alani said planning was far from complete. “Military ideas and scenarios are there, but they have not matured into a solid integrated plan,” he said.

Some analysts argue that Bush might hesitate to launch an invasion before the Congressional elections in November for fear of some unforeseen military setback. Others counter that Bush’s Republicans could benefit at the polls from a surge of national unity and patriotism that a war could be expected to engender. Big task ahead

Steven Simon, deputy director of London’s International Institute of Strategic Studies, said the Bush administration still had plenty of work to do to achieve domestic public support and win over foreign allies for an attack on Iraq.

“The Republican party elders are not behind this yet except for (former Secretary of State Henry) Kissinger,” he said, referring to criticisms voiced by some senior Republicans who served with Bush’s father, former President George Bush.

Simon said the White House would have to “slug it out” with Congress on the war powers issue and make a persuasive case at Congressional hearings on war aims scheduled for next month.

“Internationally the administration has its work cut out. They feel strongly that they don’t need a new U.N. resolution, but experienced voices are advising them to get one,” he said.

Recourse to the United Nations, perhaps for a Security Council resolution giving Iraq a deadline to readmit and cooperate with U.N. arms inspectors, might comfort Washington’s queasy allies, but could delay any military action.

Analysts said clues to invasion timing in the shape of troop movements or stockpiling of weaponry, equipment and fuel had yet to materialize in any decisive fashion.

And the declared opposition to any invasion by all of Iraq’s neighbors has raised unanswered questions over which, if any, bases in the region would be at Washington’s disposal.

But the U.S. Navy did confirm earlier this month that it was seeking a large ship to carry helicopters and arms from the United States to the Red Sea. It has also ordered a vessel to carry military hardware from Europe to the Middle East.

The Pentagon this month awarded a contract to U.S. based Maersk Line to run eight ships capable of carrying ammunition, tanks and ambulances. The ships are to be deployed near the Diego Garcia military base in the Indian Ocean.

Garden said the total number of U.S. reserves being called up was falling slightly at the moment. “If they were preparing a big ground operation, you would not expect them to be running down reserves, but quietly building them up,” he said.