Can This War Be Avoided?

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In Kuwait members of U.S. Army Task Force 1-64 take part in desert war games that could be practice for the real thing

The more the U.S. readies itself for war, the more jittery people are asking whether the juggernaut can be stopped. For months, President Bush has performed a dizzying two-step, insisting that he has not decided to invade Iraq, even as the U.S. pours forces into the Persian Gulf to convince Saddam Hussein that he will. Surely and steadily, U.S. strategists have moved forward with their plans to put 100,000 soldiers into the region by Feb. 1. By Jan. 27, the day set for the U.N.'s weapons inspectors to report their first formal findings to the Security Council, they hope a record of Iraq's malfeasance will be established, clearing the way for a regime-changing assault to begin and end before the desert heat gives the overmatched Iraqi forces a reprieve.

But last week the White House's complex timetable for a war—which is not to be confused with its determination to wage one—seemed to slip. An assortment of forces sought to throw the U.S. off its appointment in Baghdad. The mushrooming crisis in North Korea clamored for Bush's attention. There were Thursday's reports from the chiefs of the U.N. inspection teams, Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei, that while Iraq has not made "a serious effort" to comply substantively with inspectors' requests, the teams probably will not produce a smoking gun by Jan. 27. That disclosure emboldened several key states to wobble, including faithful Britain. Its ambassador to the U.N., Jeremy Greenstock, told reporters to "calm down" about Jan. 27 and insisted "more time" is needed for an adequate inspection process. British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who faces an insurrection within his party if he signs up for a U.S. campaign that lacks the U.N.'s blessing, was reported to be pushing Bush to delay the war until fall. A Blair aide denied the report but acknowledged that the British leader faces serious political damage if Bush starts firing before establishing credibility "in the eyes of the world."

But delay does not yet mean war can be avoided. Bush has been at this pass before, notably last autumn when sharp international and domestic criticism threatened to derail his drive for regime change in Iraq almost before it began. Yet he maneuvered adroitly around and over the obstacles to advance his cause by pushing a tough inspection resolution through the U.N. The coming days will continue to work for and against him. But whatever the behavior of nations outside Iraq—and barring a change of behavior or a stroke of luck inside Iraq—it seems unlikely that Bush's game is going to end without a war.

Yet even as the Pentagon called up divisions and shipped off battle groups, the Administration put the brakes on its rhetorical march. State Department officials warned reporters not to "assume any timetable" for a strike. Pentagon officers repeated that the President has not decided whether to launch an attack and probably won't until sufficient forces are in place, which could still take up to six weeks. "The President has said that he wants the inspectors to be able to do their jobs, to continue their efforts," said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer. Even the most ardent hawks sounded willing to give peace a chance. "I don't know why anyone would use the word inevitable," said Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. "It clearly is not inevitable."

But don't be misled. Despite their endorsement of inspections last week, White House officials interviewed by TIME say they don't anticipate that the ultimate resolution will be peaceful. "Is war avoidable?" said a White House aide. "Sure, if Saddam gets a personality transplant." The White House continues to insist Saddam possesses weapons of mass destruction, and whether or not the inspectors find any, the U.S. says it will not let Saddam off the hook until the dictator conclusively proves that none exist—which almost surely will never happen. As a senior official put it, "The President hasn't said he'll go to war at all costs. But he has said he'll disarm Saddam at all costs. The handicapping around here is that Saddam will be Saddam; he isn't going to suddenly change and cooperate."

Pentagon planners concede that they remain several weeks away from being set to launch an attack. The Administration is increasingly concerned that the new Turkish government is reluctant to open its bases to U.S. forces. That would complicate the military's hopes of moving quickly from there into northern Iraq. The Pentagon's working plan may also be bumped down the road by the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, the hajj, which will take place between Feb. 9 and Feb. 14. Officials say the White House may be reluctant to launch an air war over Iraq while commercial airliners are crisscrossing the neighborhood, carrying thousands of Muslims to Saudi Arabia. That gives all parties who hope to head off a war, including Saddam, a narrow window to try to wiggle out. Since November, the Iraqis have avoided handing the inspectors any clear provocations, while revealing almost nothing, in an effort to string out the inspections, peel allies away from Washington and scuttle any U.S. attempt to win Security Council approval for force. But that alone will not spare Saddam, since the Administration has never believed that it needed another U.N. vote to strike Iraq.

Yet much of the world still needs convincing. If the Administration has lately sounded more charitable toward the inspectors, it may be because the U.S. is counting on one issue to crack Saddam: Security Council Resolution 1441's requirement that he make key weapons workers available for questioning by the inspectors privately, even abroad, where the workers can be free to divulge the deepest, darkest secrets about Iraq's banned programs. "While we don't know what's been done, we do know who is doing it," says a senior U.S. official. "We just need to ask these guys to account for their time over the last four years."

The Iraqis have provided the U.N. with the names of 500 experts involved in banned research, but that is a woefully inadequate number, since U.N. officials say they know of at least 2,000 who have been involved in past nuclear programs alone. The U.S. has its own target list, which officials plan to hand Blix soon. Some Bush aides expect Iraq to refuse access to its best experts, which would constitute a damning material breach of Resolution 1441. "Blix will have to ask to interview them; otherwise he's not exercising the mandate given to him," says a Pentagon official. "If Iraq complies, Bush gets what he wants, because it will lead to the weapons and the disarming of Iraq. And if Saddam refuses, Bush will get his war."

But the process may not unfold so quickly or so neatly. The U.S. wants the inspectors to gather scientists in groups of 50, outside the presence of an Iraqi government minder. But two scientists interviewed so far have requested that a minder attend, afraid that they will be accused by the regime of collaborating with the enemy. "They are scared to death," says an International Atomic Energy Agency official. And with reason: former inspector David Kay says two days after a scientist inadvertently disclosed to him in the 1990s the location of a possible nuclear facility, an Iraqi official told Kay the scientist had been shot.

A source tells TIME the U.N. can't expect a public process to lure knowledgeable Iraqi experts out of the country. Those who might agree, he said, would in all likelihood be disinformers or opportunists. Truly useful scientists, the source says, "probably will have to come through intelligence channels, shuffled in the back of the car over borders, not through organized deportation." If attempted, that kind of covert operation could take months to coordinate. In the meantime, the interrogation's pace has not satisfied the constant U.S. drumbeat to put it at the top of the inspectors' agenda.

Those teams and most Security Council members have already indicated that the process will have to continue well beyond Jan. 27. The U.S. has yet to hand over the evidence it claims to have on Saddam's arsenals. But the experts warn that unless they get lucky, they may never have more than they do now: no dramatic evidence that Iraq has illicit weapons but no proof that it doesn't. The U.S. has said from the start it considers that reason enough to go to war. "This is like early cancer detection," says a White House official. "We have already detected the cancer. So do you operate now and remove it before it spreads to become even more life threatening? Or do you walk away and hope it disappears?"

Washington is determined to tighten the military noose around Saddam. Meanwhile, the less committed are talking up blue-sky solutions that could get rid of Saddam without a full-scale war. In recent weeks, one rumor of a scenario has spread like wildfire in the Muslim world: that an effort is under way to persuade Saddam to go into exile. A senior U.S. official says, "We're struck by how many Arab leaders seem to be whispering about him leaving." Another told Time that Saudi Arabia may be trying to persuade him to go, perhaps to Libya or Russia; the source says that, according to U.S. intelligence reports, a Saudi army officer visited Baghdad to assess Saddam's willingness to abdicate. Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal denies asking Saddam to quit but says, "Maybe other Arab states did."

The Arab press claims the topic was broached in Baghdad by Qatar's Foreign Minister, who likewise denies it. Could it work? Longtime Saddam watchers say even a cushy asylum deal will not entice him, given his lust for power and record of survival. And, notes an Arab diplomat, "Who has the ear of Saddam who would say to him, 'It might be a good idea to go into exile and avoid the war. Why don't you do that?'"

The other deus ex machina scenario—a lightning coup by Saddam's security forces—seems just as fanciful. "The penalty for whispering about Saddam is just horrendous, worse than death actually," Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz told TIME last week. "It can be the death of your children." Even Iraqi opposition leaders call him coup proof, thanks to his ruthlessness in dealing with suspected traitors. "Hope springs eternal," says a senior White House aide, "but no one here sees the likelihood that that's gonna happen." In Baghdad, Ahmed, a Shi'ite businessman, speaking cautiously, refers to the Shi'ite rebellion against Saddam in the early '90s that fizzled for lack of U.S. support and says, "Many people hate this regime, but it is not that they trust America either."

Nevertheless, some in the Pentagon apparently believe the threat of force on his doorstep might persuade Saddam to stand down or his henchmen to try to topple him at the 11th hour. "Baghdad's going to become increasingly ripe for revolt in coming weeks," says an Army officer who has studied the Iraqi military. At the point war appears inevitable, some members of Saddam's inner circle could make a move. Military experts say the 96 hours before the onslaught could be crucial. "The guys with Saddam are all going down with him if the invasion happens," an Army officer says. "Anyone interested in saving his skin knows the best way to do that is to take him out."

The most plausible way Bush's war might yet be derailed is if vital allies really do bail out or the inspections plod on so long, they fatally sap the energy from the whole enterprise. But while other nations may seek or even gain a slower timetable, U.S. officials are laying the groundwork for unilateral action. For all the rumors of last-ditch diplomacy, the best gauge of the prospects for war is the movement on land and sea: the transfer of hundreds of war planners from Tampa, Fla., to Camp As Saliyah in Qatar; the imminent arrival in the region, probably in Kuwait, of the 1st and 3rd Brigades of the 3rd Infantry Division from Fort Stewart and Fort Benning, Ga.; and the deployment of the U.S.S. Constellation and the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln to the waters near Iraq. Outside Baghdad, Iraq's Special Republican Guard troops are arrayed in rings around the city, while army troops build defensive earthen berms around the capital and move military units and surface-to-air-missile batteries into position. "We are prepared for anything," Saddam said in a speech broadcast last week. If a war is ultimately what Saddam wants, it appears that sooner or later he's going to get one.

—Reported by James Carney, Michael Duffy and Mark Thompson/Washington, J.F.O. McAllister/ London, Scott MacLeod/Cairo, Marguerite Michaels/U.N., Andrew Purvis/Vienna, Meenakshi Ganguly/Baghdad and Simon Robinson/Kuwait City