How Close Are We to War?

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The UN Security Council has given Iraq a final chance to avoid war by committing to disarmament. That means complying with demands to declare its weapons programs and allow UN inspectors unfettered access to suspected weapons facilities. Failure to comply will almost certainly trigger a U.S.-led attack on Iraq. So how close are we to war? A timeline of the months ahead:

Within 7 Days,Iraq must declare its acceptance of the UN Security Council's demands. Baghdad sees the resolution as simply a cover for U.S. war plans, but the entire international community, including the outspokenly anti-war Arab League states, has made clear that Iraq has no alternative or wiggle room. The 15-0 vote at the Security Council and the Bush administration's readiness to go to the mat will likely push Saddam to promise compliance, albeit grudgingly.

Within 10 Days, Dr. Hans Blix is expected to lead the first UNMOVIC team back to Baghdad (assuming Iraq accepts the new resolution). Although the inspectors will be empowered to begin conducting inspections immediately, UNMOVIC has indicated that its advance team will be sent in to set up logistical and communications infrastructure for the inspectors. They could, however, undertake a relatively symbolic early inspection in order to test the bona fides of Iraqi compliance.

Within 18 Days, UNMOVIC's inspection experts are expected to begin arriving in Baghdad. It may take them at least a week to set themselves up in preparation for conducting inspections.

Within 30 Days, Iraq is required to present a comprehensive inventory of its weapons programs that might contravene UN regulations. This marks a critical moment in the new arms inspection regime, since it has been made clear to Iraq that any further acts of concealment or evasion will bring down the wrath of the international community. Baghdad's decisions over what to include in that inventory may prove decisive in determining Iraq's future, because if inspections reveal weapons stocks or programs that have not been accounted for, such revelations may be taken by the Bush Administration as grounds for war.

Within 45 Days, UNMOVIC must have resumed full-scale inspections of suspected weapons sites.

Within 60 Days, Blix must report back to the Security Council on the progress of the inspection program and Iraqi compliance. But if UNMOVIC's work is obstructed by the Iraqis before that, he will be expected to report such infractions to the Security Council.

Who's the Umpire? The extent to which Iraq is compliant or non-compliant with the disarmament resolution will be decided at the UN. Blix will have to make day-to-day determinations over Iraqi cooperation, and report any infractions back to the Security Council. But he will have some discretion to determine, for example, whether or not a locked door to which a key cannot immediately be produced is deliberate obstruction. Blix is expected to make a detailed report of UNMOVIC's progress to the Security Council within 60 days. And it will be up to the Council to determine whether Iraq is complying with the demands of the international community.

If Iraq Says No? to any step in the process, the UN Security Council will be convened to consider further action. In order to achieve consensus at the Security Council, the Bush administration has undertaken to discuss the matter first with the Council before marching off to war. However, the Administration has also made clear that it won't be bound by the outcome of such a discussion, and reserves the right to take military action without a further UN resolution if the Security Council finds Iraq in breach of its obligations.

Countdown to War? If Iraq rejects the latest Security Council resolution or tries to block the inspectors from the get-go, the U.S. will likely move to launch an attack as soon as it has the requisite forces in position. But assuming the inspectors are allowed to return and conduct their work unhindered, the Security Council is unlikely to hear from Blix before his 60-day report-back in early January. If Iraq's conduct to that point fails to meet UN requirements, the U.S. will likely push for action. Strategic analysts tend to agree that the window for launching a major ground offensive in Iraq closes in March or April, with the onset of hot weather and summer dust-storms. It reopens, again, around October. But if Iraq cooperates with UNMOVIC through Blix's first 60 days back in Baghdad and a month or two beyond, it could succeed in postponing the question of war until next Fall.