WASHINGTON - The Bush administration is agressively moving forward with planning to oust Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, laying the groundwork for a possible U.S.-led invasion early next year, according to senior U.S. officials and individuals involved in the planning.
Under one scenario being discussed at the Pentagon, a force of 250,000 to 300,000 U.S. troops would invade Iraq and overthrow Saddam, backed by massive air strikes. Turkey, Kuwait and Qatar have indicated they would allow their territory to be used for an attack.
But some civilian aides to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld are pushing for a quicker -- and, critics say, riskier -- thrust in an attempt to catch Saddam off guard. That strategy would involve roughly 80,000 troops and could be in place by this fall.
Proponents of this approach argue that a surprise attack is vital because the Iraqi leader knows that, unlike the 1991 Persian Gulf war, the U.S. goal this time will be his ouster. Thus, he may be tempted to lash out first with chemical or biological weapons.
``If it happened in October, I wouldn't be completely surprised,'' said one official involved in the planning. He and others spoke on condition of anonymity.
What Saddam might do is at the center of the debate over which plan to follow. Some could start earlier than others, a senior U.S. official said. Large numbers of Americans and Iraqis could be killed and wounded, especially if there was fighting in Baghdad and other major cities.
President Bush -- who has repeatedly declared his intention to get rid of Saddam -- has made no final decision on which, if any, plan to execute, the officials emphasized.
And the White House has not yet begun a concerted effort to convince the U.S. public, Congress or American allies of the need to pre-emptively strike Iraq.
``It is absolutely clear to me they have not made the case yet and they know that. They haven't made it to the American people, they haven't made it to our allies, and they haven't made it to the region,'' said Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del. Biden, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, opens hearings on Iraq policy next week.
Washington's two closest Arab allies, Egypt and oil-rich Saudi Arabia, oppose military action against Iraq, as does virtually every European ally except Great Britain.
These nations argue that Bush should first get the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on a path to resolution. Otherwise, they say, attacking Iraq could ignite the Middle East and endanger pro-Western regimes.
The State Department shares those concerns. ``With all that's going on, with all the uncertainty in the Middle East . . . it probably is not a good time,'' said a senior State Department official.
Nor has the Bush administration sketched out a vision of a post-Saddam regime that could hold together the unruly nation of 23 million Shi'ite Muslims, Sunni Muslims and ethnic Kurds.
Despite these unanswered questions, the United States appears to be creeping toward war. Some officials worry that Bush may have backed himself into a corner with his bellicose rhetoric.
``I think a widespread assumption is, the U.S. is going to attack. . . . There is widespread concern that this will destabilize the whole of the Middle East,'' said an official at the United Nations.
In one sign of how serious the planning is, top Bush aides are debating whether the president should get Congress' approval for an invasion. His father did so before launching Operation Desert Storm to expel Iraqi troops from Kuwait.
Some Bush aides argue that Saddam, who since 1998 has refused inspections of his weapons of mass destruction programs, is in violation of the U.N. Security Council resolutions that ended the 1991 war, and no further authority is needed.
Others argue that it makes sense to seek Congress' backing since it is virtually assured.
Biden said in an interview that going after Saddam without congressional assent and public support ``could be a career-ending move'' for Bush. The president understands the risk, he added.
``I have specifically inquired about the prospect of an October surprise and have been told there will not be an October surprise,'' the senator said.
In another possible sign of Bush's intent, the United States moved this week to shut down U.N. negotiations with Iraq over a return of weapons inspectors.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan told the Security Council on Wednesday that further talks with Iraq would be fruitless unless Baghdad agrees to give inspectors unconditional access. Washington opposed even technical-level talks with the Iraqis, a U.S. diplomat said.
The move prompted speculation that Washington was preparing public opinion for an eventual attack.
No attack is imminent, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said Thursday. ``There are many issues to be considered before we are at the point of decision,'' he said.
But Blair added that ``the omens don't look very good, frankly,'' for a diplomatic breakthrough.
U.S. officials fear that Saddam could undercut any effort to build international support for military action by readmitting U.N. weapons inspectors, while preventing them unfettered access, as he has in the past.
On the military options, some planners and non-government experts argue that the 80,000-member invasion force being pushed by Pentagon hawks is too small, and could lead to a catastrophe if there is widespread street fighting in Baghdad. Many innocent Iraqi citizens could be caught up in the warfare and killed.
The post-Saddam era could be a disaster, ``if we don't do the take-down right,'' said the official involved in planning. ``Waiting three, four, five more months buys you so much more in terms of doing it right.''
Still, he said, ``I've never seen a scenario where we lose.''
Michael Vickers, a former Army special operations and CIA officer, said a substantial U.S. force would be needed to subdue Baghdad.
``The regime take-down part is where the uncertainty is, once you get to the gates of Baghdad,'' said Vickers, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, an independent Washington defense think tank.
Whatever plan may be adopted, defense officials and experts believe the U.S. military is better trained, equipped and positioned to take on Iraq now than it was in 1991.
``We will go as a much more experienced force,'' said Gen. John M. Keane, the vice chief of Army staff.
Operation Desert Storm was the first major engagement for the U.S. military since the Vietnam War. The forces involved were untested and took six months to deploy at bases that first had to be built in Saudi Arabia.
Since then, U.S. forces have been seasoned and honed by more rigorous training regimes, an unprecedented number of overseas operations and wars in the Balkans and Afghanistan.
U.S. forces also have been armed with improved tanks, aircraft, unmanned spy planes and precision-guided bombs that can hit targets around the clock and in any kind of weather.
The U.S. military has a network of bases around the Persian Gulf and Turkey that could anchor an assault on Iraq. It has hundreds of aircraft and a carrier battle group in the region and enough tanks and other weaponry permanently stored in Kuwait and Qatar to equip two heavy infantry brigades that could spearhead an invasion.
U.S. troops could also use new facilities set up in Central Asia to support U.S.-led coalition forces in Afghanistan.
Saddam's military capabilities, meanwhile, have eroded.
Though Iraq's 424,000-man military remains the strongest in the region, it has been prevented by a decade of U.N. sanctions from replacing its largely obsolete Soviet-designed armory with modern weapons systems.
The Iraqi military is believed to lack sufficient spare parts to fight a protracted war, and the loyalty of many troops is highly suspect.
But many experts said that an invasion would still be a high-risk venture that could claim thousands of American lives and hold unforeseen consequences for regional stability.
``You definitely cannot count on it being a cakewalk,'' said Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution, a Washington research institute.
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