How Long Has Saddam Got?

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Blix's teams have uncovered weapons-related smuggling but it is unclear if the goods can be linked to weapons of mass destruction

President Bush warned on Tuesday that "time is running out" for Saddam Hussein to disarm and avoid a U.S. invasion. But while the clock is ticking, there are signs that the alarm may have been reset. Where once the assumption had been that the January 27 Security Council report by UN weapons inspectors would mark a moment of decision, the Bush Administration now appears to have concurred with its allies and with the inspectors that it would not be treated as a deadline. U.S. and British officials have since the weekend stressed that the inspectors would be given time to finish their work, at the same time saying the crisis was headed into a decisive phase that would necessarily result in disarming Iraq, whether by diplomacy or by force. The message to Saddam remains unambiguous: Disarm, or be disarmed. But what is no longer so clear, however, is when the key decisions might be taken.

Last week's inconclusive report to the Security Council — Saddam didn't come clean, but didn't obstruct the inspections, and Hans Blix's team hasn't turned up evidence of prohibited weapons in Iraq — immediately prompted Britain and other key U.S. allies to call for the inspection process to be allowed to run its course. In Britain, Prime Minister Tony Blair sought to head off mounting disquiet in his own government and in the broader electorate over U.S. intentions. Blair insisted Monday that if allowed to proceed and escalate, the inspection process would eventually prove the case his own government and the Bush Administration have made against Saddam — and establish an incontrovertible argument, in the eyes of the UN, for military action.

The British media speculated Tuesday that Blair's certainty may derive from intelligence that had been shared with the inspection team, which is moving to ramp up its operations through the use of helicopters, spy-planes and by moving to question Iraqi scientists abroad. Blix flies to Baghdad on Sunday for a meeting with Iraqi leaders, where he will demand that Iraq answer specific questions on the gaps in its December declaration. So, even though Iraq appears to have passed the first hurdle, the UN weapons inspectors are clearly moving to raise the pressure on Baghdad by setting it tougher tests, restoring the premise that the onus is on Iraq to demonstrate through active cooperation that it has ended all prohibited weapons programs.

But the timetable for the ramped-up inspection process may not necessarily be compatible with one that seeks to launch an invasion in optimal battlefield conditions before next Fall. Blix spelled out on Monday that January 27 would merely be a work-in-progress report, much like last week's, and that he planned — in keeping with the earlier Security Council resolution that created UNMOVIC and mandated quarterly reports — to present the Council with a comprehensive report, including a "work plan" for Iraqi disarmament, toward the end of March. With January 27 no longer a trigger date, Blix, supported by the European Union, appears to be suggesting a two-month (and possibly longer) postponement in formulating any kind of conclusion. And chief nuclear inspector Mohammed El-Baradei has suggested that it may take his team another year to finish their job.

Blair projects confidence that a crisis point is imminent, at which either the inspectors find proof of continued weapons programs, or else the Iraqis throw up a roadblock to prevent them doing so. Both scenarios set the stage for a quick military response, but, failing that, the process as defined by the UN inspectors may not reach a conclusion within the time frame necessary to launch a war that could be won before the onset of the blistering Iraqi summer.

Still, the trajectory of the inspection process may not be the factor that determines the timetable of a war against Iraq. The U.S. and Britain have not allowed the vagaries of the inspection process to delay their troop deployments, and by mid-February they plan to have as many as 250,000 soldiers stationed in the region. Blix and the UN will use their presence to impress on Iraq the importance of doing the inspectors' bidding, and Arab governments will use it to make the case for Baghdad going along with an as-yet unspecified eleventh-hour diplomatic solution. Domestic political and economic concerns, the state of uncertainty in the world economy and the prospect of mounting instability in the Arab world, and even the issue of troop morale may work against the Bush Administration keeping such a large force assembled, but inactive, in the Gulf through punishing summer. Once the invasion force is assembled, it may call forth the Napoleonic-era maxim that "armies don't stand idle in the spring."