Going After Saddam: Why It's a Waiting Game

White House advisers are divided on how to deal with him

With the war in Afghanistan heading for a denouement, strategists inside and outside the White House are turning their attention to another hotbed of terrorism: Iraq. It's no secret President Bush has long been hostile to Saddam Hussein's regime, which has bankrolled terrorism in the Mideast, pursued weapons of mass destruction, and, a decade ago, survived his battle with the first Bush Administration.

Still, there's much disagreement within the Administration over the way to deal with Iraq. Hard-liners such as Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz, backed by the GOP right wing and Israeli sympathizers, advocate going after Iraq. But other foreign-policy heavyweights, such as Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, fear an attack would split the anti-terror coalition. So while Bush has many choices if he decides to take on Saddam--ranging from calling in a huge ground force of American GIs to further isolating Iraq with sanctions the Administration pushed in the U.N. earlier in the year--no decisions have been made. Here's a look at the options:

-- Desert Storm II. Launching a major offensive could topple Saddam. But without hard evidence that Iraq was involved in the September 11 attacks or other recent terrorist acts, there will be no support in the region or among U.S. allies for the campaign. A lack of diplomatic backing would have military consequences. Without access to bases in Saudi Arabia or Kuwait, a U.S. ground invasion is all but impossible. And neither country is willing to stand alone in the Arab world on America's side.

-- Afghanistan II. The U.S. could try to destabilize Iraq by providing air support and covert assistance to indigenous fighters--exactly the same strategy used so successfully in Afghanistan. But Iraq isn't Afghanistan. For starters, the Iraqi Republican Guard is better trained and better equipped than the Taliban were, and would no doubt prove far tougher and more determined. What's more, opposition groups such as the London-based Iraqi National Congress are weaker than the war-hardened Northern Alliance, which had years of experience fighting the Taliban.

-- Smart Sanctions II. The Bush team could revert to its earlier U.N. proposal of punishing the Iraqi regime while cushioning the blow to the overall Iraqi population. The focus of import restrictions would be on items that could be used to produce nuclear and chemical weapons while easing restrictions on civilian goods. And neighboring countries would crack down on oil smuggling, which bankrolls Saddam's weapons development. Russia had thwarted the previous Bush-backed U.N. sanctions but might have a different view now that President Vladimir V. Putin has cast his lot so unreservedly with Washington. Other nations that had balked in the past may also be more amenable in the wake of September 11, particularly if direct evidence linking the Iraqis with Al Qaeda piles up.

One way or another, the rout of the Taliban in Afghanistan isn't good news for the Iraqi regime. At the very least, it gives the U.S. a chance to "make sure we get some concessions from the world to contain Saddam Hussein," says Kenneth M. Pollack, deputy director for national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a senior foreign policy adviser in the Clinton Administration. That may mean Saddam will be safe a while longer. But if his development of dangerous weapons is curbed, the rest of the world will be safer, too.

By Stan Crock and Richard S. Dunham in Washington

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