An Iraq Attack: What Are the Chances Now?

Triggers for war loom at every step in the inspection process

Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein bowed to international pressure on Nov. 13 and agreed to allow weapons inspectors back into his country under the terms of a tough new U.N. Security Council resolution. That resolution, approved unanimously on Nov. 8, warns of "serious consequences" if Saddam fails to cooperate with the inspectors, who will be trying to find and destroy chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons, as well as missiles that could deliver them.

To Arab nations who supported the resolution and to other opponents of the threatened war, the inspections represent Saddam's last chance to avert an American-led attack. Here's a primer to help handicap the odds of a conflict as the U.S.-Iraq showdown plays out.

When will inspectors return to Iraq?

An advance team led by Hans Blix, executive chairman of the U.N. Monitoring, Verification & Inspection Commission, and Mohamed ElBaradei, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, will head to Baghdad on Nov. 18 to discuss logistics. But a full complement of some 100 inspectors won't start work until Dec. 23. Before that, by Dec. 8, Saddam is required to fully disclose his weapons programs to the U.N.

Will Saddam admit he has weapons?

For him it's a dilemma. He has denied for years that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction. If he refuses to disclose weapons programs yet again, the U.S. could consider that very refusal a reason to go to war. The U.S. would then provide the Security Council with its evidence of Iraqi weapons, including an October Central Intelligence Agency report that found that Iraq continues work on banned chemical, biological, and nuclear programs.

Under the terms of the U.N. resolution, the U.S. is required to return to the Security Council for consultations--but not another vote--before taking any military action. If Saddam fails to cooperate, the Bush Administration feels it can go ahead even without a new resolution authorizing force.

Maybe Saddam wants to cooperate, in order to avert war.

That's a possibility, although many analysts doubt he really wants to give up his weapons of mass destruction. Still, if inspectors are given unfettered access to suspect sites, it might signal a change of heart. If Iraq cooperates, Washington thinks inspections could disarm Saddam, who might in the end decide that presiding over a less-potent Iraq beats a hailstorm of smart bombs. Under the U.N. resolution, the inspectors have until Feb. 21 to report to the Security Council on Iraq's cooperation. But they must report immediately if they are denied access to sensitive sites or face a pattern of harassment. That could set the stage for a conflict.

Isn't there a danger that Saddam will drag this process out?

The nightmare scenario for the U.S. is that Saddam is able to hide his weapons so well that even uncurbed inspections turn up nothing. Biological and chemical weapons are particularly hard to detect. Such an outcome could leave the White House without a pretext for military action. Or Saddam could hand over some weapons--but keep others hidden. The U.S. would run up against a barrage of criticism if it goes after Saddam while he is seen to be cooperating. There's a time factor involved in launching military action, too. Most experts say the U.S. should not delay much past February to start the war to boost the odds that it will be over before May's hot weather makes it hard for soldiers in protective gear to fight.

How likely is war?

Many experts think President Bush's tough rhetoric has put his credibility at stake. The Pentagon has invested heavily in moving troops and equipment to the region. And many Administration officials doubt Saddam will ever meet the U.N. standards. When these three factors are added together, a conflict seems inevitable. Still, other Iraq experts with close ties to the Administration believe the U.N. inspections may be successful enough to cripple Iraq's arms program and make war unnecessary.

If there is a conflict, how would the Pentagon wage the war?

What's expected is a short conflict that would start with an air assault designed to sever the communication network between Saddam and his troops. Allied ground forces would move in rapidly, especially in areas in the north and south where Baghdad has little control. These zones would provide staging grounds, reducing the need to rely on Arab neighbors for bases. To avoid urban combat, troops would surround Baghdad and hope Iraqi forces surrender en masse, as they did in Operation Desert Storm. The key unknown: whether the U.S. could knock out Iraq's Scud missile sites before Saddam launches chemical or biological weapons.

How will the region react?

The Arabs don't want war but won't cry if Saddam goes. If there is a flagrant violation of the unanimous Security Council resolution, that would provide cover for Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan, Qatar, and Turkey to line up with the U.S. and Britain. They might provide bases and overflight rights, and Turkey might provide troops.

In return for such help, Iraq's neighbors would want the U.S. to make sure regime change in Baghdad doesn't bring chaos to the region. That means not only averting a breakup of Iraq but also shoring it up, as well as thwarting any moves by Iran or Turkey to exploit the vacuum. Winning the peace could prove far harder than winning the war.

By Stan Crock in Washington, with Stanley Reed in Riyadh

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