High noon may be fast approaching in the Gulf, but if the guns do start blazing we're in for a lot more than a quick, climactic firefight. The evacuation of U.N. arms inspectors from Baghdad Wednesday, together with President Clinton's delay of his departure for Asia, signal that an attack may be imminent. But proceeding with an air-and-missile strike will demand a more sustained military commitment from the U.S. and its allies. "UNSCOM had been hanging on by a thread, but once we bomb, it's over," says TIME Pentagon correspondent Mark Thompson. "And with UNSCOM gone, it'll take more than a single strike to answer Saddam's transgressions -- bombing Iraq could be the beginning of a sustained campaign of arms control by bombing."
Even as the U.S. puts its forces in position to launch air and missile strikes, the strategic initiative still remains with Saddam. He created this crisis by ending cooperation with UNSCOM, and he can end it by simply backing off at the last minute, as he did last February. Which would leave the White House looking for a way out of a geopolitical "Groundhog Day."