After a year of internal divisions and military diversions, serious planning is underway within the Bush administration for a campaign against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
The administration expects to complete a long-delayed Iraq policy review by the time Vice President Dick Cheney makes his nine-nation Mideast tour next month, so that he can outline American plans to Arab leaders, according to senior U.S. officials.
Any denouement in Iraq is still a long way off, the officials insist. But the broad outlines of favored options have begun to emerge. At the heart of administration policy are two strategic decisions, according to the officials, who do not want to be identified while the policy review is underway.
First, the Iraq problem has to be solved, not simply managed as it was during the previous two U.S. administrations. The philosophy of so-called containment, or limiting the damage Hussein could do either to the region or at home, is no longer considered enough.
Many analysts, including former Clinton administration officials, now argue that it may even be dangerous to simply contain Iraq, because the regime has enough wiggle room to quietly work on weaponry that would allow it to pull off devastating surprises down the road.
Second, Washington is prepared to push beyond the limitations imposed by international sentiment, Arab public opinion and even the original U.N. resolutions that opened the way for Operation Desert Storm 11 years ago to force Iraq out of tiny oil-rich Kuwait.
Having survived short-lived opposition to the campaign in Afghanistan, U.S. officials express a new confidence about going up against what is still a strong tide of resistance.
The debate continues, however, about what to do next. But the administration's mind-set and the progress of the war in Afghanistan, especially compared with the decade-long Soviet struggle there in the 1980s, have opened the way for new thinking about what might work.
As policymakers deliberate the options, three basic scenarios are emerging:
* The diplomatic route, working through the United Nations to pass new "smart sanctions" and press Hussein's regime to allow the return of inspectors who would look for and dismantle any chemical, biological and nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.
* A military campaign, probably relying heavily on air power and potential defections within the Iraqi military.
* A tightening of the political noose around Hussein's government with more coercive actions by neighboring states and the international community.
The policy may well end up with some mix of these approaches. But the common denominator behind each is the threat of some kind of military action should Iraq not change its ways. Despite opposition from allies, a major U.S. military effort is no longer out of the question, U.S. officials say.
"There's an evolving consensus that a sizable U.S. military activity will be required," a well-placed source said.
Even Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, long the most cautious voice among the principals crafting policy on Iraq, is on board. At two congressional hearings last week, he put the world on notice that President Bush is exploring "the most serious set of options that one might imagine" that will leave "no stone unturned."
The ultimate goal: a change of regimes--and sooner rather than later.
"After the president, Powell now looks like the hardest-line person in the administration," mused a senior State Department official Friday.
The policy review is exploring the possibility of new anti-Hussein opposition inside and outside Iraq, U.S. officials say. Consensus is growing on broadening the makeup of the U.S.-funded Iraqi National Congress, or INC, and encouraging the coalition to find new leadership.
"The INC could still be a useful umbrella to bring other political forces together, but not as it is currently constituted. We need an INC that is more representative of all the forces in Iraq," a senior administration official said.
INC chief Ahmad Chalabi still has support from some quarters, notably at the Pentagon, but "that is not where policy is currently headed," the official added.
Since last year, Pentagon political appointees have advocated using the INC in the same way the American military used Afghan opposition forces, backed by U.S. Special Forces troops, to battle the Taliban. But key officials at the State Department and in the Joint Chiefs of Staff remain skeptical about the INC's military capabilities.
The INC, and the CIA station that supported it, was forced out of northern Iraq by Hussein's troops in 1996. Since then, the INC has been headquartered in London and unable to make any serious challenges at home.
"I don't see us drawing up operations with the INC as it would take too long to build it up as a fighting force," said the well-placed source.
Last month, the U.S. suspended key INC funding because the group failed to account for tens of millions of dollars in aid. After lengthy talks, Washington has restored full funding for three months, during which it will monitor INC accounting.
Even if the INC is reconstituted, however, the administration is still exploring other fronts. One idea gaining currency in Washington is turning to the Iraqi military as allies, according to U.S. officials. The new thinking argues that a U.S. offensive would lead to thousands of defections by Iraqi troops, as happened during Desert Storm. Defectors might then be converted into an anti-Hussein force.
The former Bush and Clinton administrations believed that Hussein's downfall depended on senior officers in his inner circle who might be disillusioned enough to turn on their boss. But a decade of waiting for the generals to act has produced nothing significant.
In contrast, key U.S. officials now argue, the rank and file in the military might easily fold under serious military pressure--and defect to the U.S. side.
"As we learned in Afghanistan, some regimes are not as solid as they pretend to be. The trick is finding the pressure points that can break the structure," the senior State Department official said.
Of the three scenarios, the diplomatic route is gaining speed the fastest, although key U.S. officials are skeptical that it will produce a change of Iraqi regimes. But Washington must be seen to exhaust those possibilities to win allied support for--or at least tolerance of--more aggressive options, U.S. officials say.
After months of negotiations, Washington is close to winning agreement at the United Nations on streamlining the world's toughest economic embargo, U.S. officials say. Russia, which has a veto, has been the last holdout.
U.N. agreement, which could be voted on in May when the embargo is due to be renewed, would open the way for a change in the sanctions that would allow more goods for Iraq's struggling population while limiting Hussein's arsenal.
The United Nations is also pressing harder for return to Iraq of its weapons inspectors, who have been barred since 1998.
The threatening language from Washington, including Bush's description of Iraq as part of an "axis of evil," and the U.N. moves have Hussein on the defensive, U.S. officials claim. Last week he offered to resume "a dialogue" with the world body, although he is resisting any talk of the inspectors.
But the diplomatic route is vulnerable to failure, U.S. officials note. To enforce smart sanctions, the U.N. will have to rely on inspections on the borders of Syria, Iran, Turkey and Jordan, all of which allow Iraq to smuggle oil out in violation of U.N. sanctions in exchange for payoffs or deep discounts on the resource.
Persuading Iraq to allow in the weapons inspectors also may not produce a quick and decisive climax. Just getting the operations going could take months. And then, as his regime did for eight years, Hussein could carry out "cheat and retreat" schemes to prolong the process.
The second scenario, involving a tighter squeeze on Iraq outside the framework of the United Nations, also would try to cut off the regime in high-profile ways. One idea making the rounds in Washington is getting Iraq's neighboring states together to discuss a viable post-Hussein government--similar to the talks in Germany on post-Taliban rule.
But some of these options depend on the cooperation of front-line neighbors and the Arab world, which have been reluctant to sign on to previous proposals.
Indeed, Cheney may find that he has his work cut out for him on his most ambitious diplomatic mission. Arab allies remain deeply concerned about some of the new U.S. ideas. "Our problem is that we see much of it as wishful thinking or a leap of faith--particularly relying on defections. This doesn't have the feel of a workable plan," said an Arab official who asked to remain anonymous.
Arabs are particularly worried about the post-Hussein government. "None of us are defending Saddam Hussein," the envoy added. "But we want to make sure that everyone is better off the day after he's gone, and that means a lot more planning than is going on now."
Copyright 2002 Los Angeles Times