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US ready to attack Iraq -- when the time is right

The United States has signaled its determination to kick Iraqi President Saddam Hussein out of power, but it has yet to find allies or set a date for mounting an eventual military operation against Baghdad.
Alternating between war rhetoric and caution, the administration of US President George W. Bush has said it will remain prudent and patient with regard to Iraq but will nonetheless keep all of its options open, as national security adviser Condoleezza Rice noted Thursday.

Secretary of State Colin Powell said Thursday that Washington was determined to topple Saddam and will act alone if necessary to change the regime in Baghdad.

Bush, for his part, has branded Iraq part of an "axis of evil," along with Iran and North Korea, that must forcibly be prevented from acquiring weapons of mass destruction.

"After numerous debates within the administration, several indicators show that there are plans underway for a military operation," said Mary-Jane Deeb, a Middle East expert at Washington's American University.

The United States' number-one priority is to get Saddam to allow international weapons inspectors -- kicked out of the country in 1998 -- to return to Iraq, to ensure that Baghdad is not developing nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction.

"If inspectors return to Iraq, it would be more difficult to justify an attack. On the other hand, if Baghdad continues to refuse, it will appear as though it has something to hide" and will offer pretty strong justification for those calling for strikes in the interest of international security, Deeb said.

Military experts cited by various media outlets have estimated that it would take between 50,000 and 200,000 troops to conduct the operation against Iraq, which could be launched from Kuwait, Turkey or Saudi Arabia.

"What it would involve is probably some work with the INC (Iraqi National Congress) and some special forces people working with them, a US force in the area of maybe 50,000 people on the ground, and then bombing strategic targets," said Lawrence Korb of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Although Washington has steered clear of setting an exact date for any eventual action, analysts point to three potentially pivotal events:

- In mid-March, Vice President Dick Cheney is to visit the Middle East and key US allies Turkey and Britain, for a trip that could be aimed at rallying support for strikes against Iraq.

- In May, Washington hopes to secure the UN Security Council's support for changes in sanctions against Iraq, applying them to military equipment but not to civilian goods. Such an accord could strip Saddam of his argument that the Iraqi people are suffering under the sanctions.

- In November, near the middle of Bush's term as president, the United States is to hold congressional elections that could potentially be used to reinforce Bush's image as the leader of a successful war effort, which has gained him immense popularity. But if the economic or electoral climate is unfavorable, Bush may shy away from having US troops engaged in conflict.

Iraq says it expects to be the target of a fresh military offensive by the United States.

The prospect of military action against Baghdad has been roundly condemned throughout the Arab world, whose leaders fear it would destabilize the region.

Several European countries have also expressed strong opposition or reservations to potential strikes.



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