A U.S.-led military force is likely to strike Iraq within three weeks, and will aim to secure victory by the end of March, military analysts predicted yesterday.
Following Monday's critical report by United Nations weapons inspectors, military experts said their best guess now is that an attack will begin shortly after Feb. 14, the date of the inspectors' next report.
Start of US attack may coincide with February 15th world-wide day of protest.
Many experts believe a large ground force would have to sweep through Iraq before the beginning of April, when the oppressive summer weather sets in. They also see the intense diplomatic manoeuvring and the U.S. military buildup in the Persian Gulf area as pointing strongly toward an imminent war.
"It'll be the interaction of all those things; it's hard to separate them out," said Rex Brynen, a professor of political science at Montreal's McGill University.
Pentagon planners are mindful that Feb. 15 marks the end of the Muslim holiday Eid al-Adha. Attacking during this important festival would further offend Iraq's neighbours and supporters in the Muslim world.
Rosemary Hollis of the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London sees war coming shortly after that, and believes the conflict will quickly expand beyond Iraq, with a devastating Israeli attack against the Palestinian Hamas group and on Lebanon-based Hezbollah.
In the meantime, the U.S. administration is still trying to line up its diplomatic blocks.
Part of that process will entail some serious arm-twisting at the Security Council, where Washington still hopes to push through a new resolution authorizing the use of force. Yesterday, Russia appeared to move closer to the U.S. stand, with Russian President Vladimir Putin warning that Moscow "may change its position" if Iraq is hampering inspectors.
Next week, in a final effort to portray Iraq as an imminent threat, Washington is expected to disclose long-promised evidence of Baghdad's hidden weapons of mass destruction. It is also expected to apply yet more pressure on Turkey and Saudi Arabia to secure tacit but full co-operation in an attack. Washington has been shipping troops and military hardware to the region for weeks, and roughly 100,000 U.S. and British troops are either in place or on their way. The Pentagon clearly wants more: Its stated goal is to have about 150,000 soldiers ready for battle by mid-February.
A prime consideration will preclude Washington from sitting on its heels much beyond the end of February: the weather.
U.S. officials have sought to play down that factor as the Pentagon draws up plans to attack and occupy one of the hottest countries in the world. "Many battles have been fought in the heat of summer," Secretary of State Colin Powell said recently.
Nonetheless, any assault would be greatly complicated if left too late. From December until about mid-March, temperatures in Iraq usually range between 7 and 24 degrees. But as April approaches, the heat begins building, often reaching the low 40s by June, along with raging, machinery-clogging dust storms. Even in a conventional war, that would be a daunting environment. The U.S. assumption is that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein still has chemical weapons, and would deploy them. That means that many of the invaders will be kitted out in sealed chemical-warfare suits that are all but impossible to use in fierce heat. "What's driving the timetable for war is not diplomacy but military readiness," energy-sector consultant Roger Diwan told Reuters News Agency. "If the U.S. needs more time to get the military in place, it will use that time to seek diplomatic backing, but whether it gets that backing or not, we still expect war to start some time between the middle of February and early March."
Runup to the expected war on Saddam Hussein's Iraq.
* Jan. 29: The United Nations Security Council convenes to discuss the newest assessment of its weapons-inspection team.
* Jan. 31: U.S. President George W. Bush meets British Prime Minister Tony Blair in what has been dubbed a council of war.
* Feb. 14: Chief weapon inspectors Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei deliver their next inspections report.
* Feb. 15: The Eid al-Adha Muslim festival ends.
* March: Mideast winter ends. Temperature averages 22C with only about four days of rain, making good conditions for ground forces.
* April: Summer begins. Temperatures continue to rise with near-ideal conditions for troops. By mid-June, temperatures often surpass 40C. No rain expected.