LONDON - The United States is highly likely to lead an invasion of Iraq in the next two months and the war should be over by the end of June, according to a Reuters survey of experts.
Thursday's poll of 20 defense and Middle East experts also showed that Washington had a good chance of securing a new U.N. resolution explicitly endorsing an invasion, despite the reservations of France, Germany, Russia and China.
Two-thirds of the experts said Iraq probably still possessed significant stocks of chemical and biological weapons, despite more than a decade of U.N. demands for disarmament.
They saw little likelihood that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein would give up office peacefully or that he could be deposed or assassinated without a U.S. invasion.
"The horse is already out of the barn," said Sarah Emerson at Boston-based Energy Security Analysis. "The invasion will take place and if the U.S. feels that it can...then they will definitely go for a (second) resolution that gives more credibility nationally.
"If they don't feel they can get that, then they won't ask...There is more of a coalition than public statements imply. When push comes to shove, countries will get on the bandwagon because they want to be part of the peace."
All but one of the experts said the United States, backed by British troops, would invade by the end of March.
But they were split on how soon troops would be fully prepared for Washington to unleash the air bombardment that would be followed, possibly within days, by a land invasion.
Ten thought the force wouldn't be fully in place, briefed and acclimatized until well into March. Nine thought they would be ready to fight by late February.
Most thought the conflict would then last up to three months, though one said it could take longer and eight thought it would be over in a month.
Estimates of how long U.S. troops would then stay on in Iraq while a new administration was established ranged widely, from six months to 10 years.
Many of the experts, in the United States, Europe, the Middle East and Asia, had been unsure until recently that the United States would press ahead with an invasion.
In the last Reuters poll, carried out in December, a narrow majority of 10 out of 18 experts said war was likely or very likely. But in Thursday's poll, 14 said war was very likely, five said likely and one said the chances were 50:50.
The consensus has hardened after the United States stepped up its war of words this week and after U.N. weapons inspectors presented an unexpectedly critical report on Monday on how far Iraq was complying with demands to prove it has disarmed.
"The report was, diplomatically speaking, rather outspoken in many respects," said Frank Umbach at the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin.
Half of the experts also thought the United Nations would endorse military action, while eight put the chances at 50:50.
Magnus Ranstorp at St Andrew's University in Scotland said Washington would try to win world opinion by presenting next week what it says is new evidence of links between Iraqi officials and al Qaeda network blamed for the September 11 attacks in 2001.
"There are linkages between certain individuals within al Qaeda and the Iraqi regime, particularly (Abu Musab) Zarqawi, who is a senior operational commander of al Qaeda," he said, adding that Zarqawi could not be directly linked to September 11.
Washington "will complete the circle, Iraq and weapons of mass destruction on one side, on the other side Iraq and al Qaeda," he said.
Some experts thought France, in particular, would come round to endorsing an invasion, even providing some military support.
The experts saw little alternative to an invasion to achieve the U.S. goal of deposing Saddam. None thought he would quit peacefully. Three said his army might overthrow him, but two of them said that would happen only after U.S. attacks start.
But some experts worry that military victory won't assuage growing cynicism about the role of the United Nations in many Asian and Muslim countries.
"This is seen not as a choice between Bush and Saddam, but between Bush and the U.N. system and international law," said Ingolf Kiesow at the Swedish Defense Research Agency.
(Additional reporting by Pratima Desai, Joanne Russell and Hament Bulsara)
Copyright 2003 Reuters Ltd