WASHINGTON—Despite President Bush's desire to topple Saddam Hussein, the United States is not yet ready to wage war against Iraq.
Before Bush can expand the war against terrorism to tackle such a large target, he has to mop up stubborn resistance in Afghanistan, redeploy U.S. forces that are scattered globally, tamp down violence between Israel and Palestinians, persuade skeptical European allies and Arab friends, and convince Congress that the risky effort is necessary.
In interviews with Knight Ridder, senior Republican and Democratic lawmakers emphasized that Bush has not yet made a convincing case to Congress and the American people that a U.S. war against Iraq is justified.
Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., chairman of the House of Representatives International Relations Committee, said Bush needs the freedom to act against Saddam if U.S. intelligence shows that the Iraqi leader intends to use deadly weapons against the United States.
But the president would have to make a convincing case that a military strike was provoked, Hyde warned.
"I think he would have the support of Congress and everyone else," Hyde said. "But the case has to be constantly made that this is something we have been driven to do, that we are not initiating a shooting war with anybody."
The one source of support that Bush has solidly in his pocket is the American people. Polls show they back his goal of toppling Saddam as part of the war on terrorism. But they seem to recognize that it will take considerably more time and work before America is ready to take on the ruthless leader that Bush accuses of pursuing weapons of mass destruction.
"It's entirely possible that it might take two years before you are ready to go after the Iraqis," said Daniel Goure, a military analyst at the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va., a conservative research organization.
The biggest brake on early action against Iraq is that the war in Afghanistan is far from over, senior U.S. officials acknowledge. In fact, it is entering what could be a more protracted and difficult phase.
The onset of spring there means better weather for fighting. CIA Director George Tenet warned Congress this week that the traditional spring fighting season may see surviving al-Qaida terrorists and Taliban fighters launch guerrilla hit-and-run attacks against U.S. and allied forces and the interim Afghan government.
There is a "very widespread probability of insurgency-style warfare," Vice Adm. Thomas R. Wilson, the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told Congress. "That's what the military has to be prepared for in the urban areas, in the rural areas, anywhere they are operating in Afghanistan."
Gen. Tommy Franks, chief of U.S. Central Command, said Tuesday that a new U.S.-led Afghan offensive is in the works. In preparation, some 1,700 British troops, including Royal Marine commandos specializing in arctic and alpine warfare, are headed to Afghanistan to bulk up the coalition forces. Two battalions of the 10th Mountain Division, based in Fort Drum, N.Y., are being rotated home and replaced by fresh units from the 101st Airborne Division from Fort Campbell, Ky.
Some senior U.S. commanders warn that they don't have enough troops to simultaneously handle their regular tasks, the war in Afghanistan and an assault on Iraq.
Even though only about 5,300 U.S. troops are in Afghanistan, they are supported by tens of thousands more inside and outside the region, substantially straining U.S. military manpower, equipment and dollars.
The fighting in Afghanistan is stretching the Pentagon's ability to deploy personnel, precision-guided weapons, ships, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets around the world.
"We do not have adequate forces to carry out our mission in the Pacific if the operations in (the Persian Gulf region) continue at their past and current pace," Adm. Dennis Blair, head of U.S. forces in the Asia-Pacific region, told Congress this week.
Air Force Gen. Joseph Ralston, the head of U.S. forces in Europe and much of the Middle East, said the war had left him without the aircraft carrier and Marine Corps contingent usually assigned to the Mediterranean.
The U.S. military also is committed to other battles against terrorism around the globe, though on a much smaller scale than what is likely in Iraq.
In the Philippines, some 660 U.S. troops, including 160 special forces, are participating in a six-month effort to help the government crush Abu Sayyaf, an Islamic extremist group linked to Osama bin Laden. In Yemen and the former Soviet republic of Georgia, the Pentagon is committed to training and equipping soldiers to fight al-Qaida elements.
In Indonesia, Bush wants to provide "nonlethal" counterterrorism training to military officers. And in Colombia, he and Congress are moving toward direct U.S. military assistance to help local forces battle leftist rebels.
U.S. forces also remain engaged in a surfeit of major and minor missions around the globe, from peacekeeping operations in the Sinai and the Balkans to enforcing no-fly zones over Iraq. Some 37,000 American troops remain on guard in South Korea against an invasion by North Korea, and 40,000 are based in Japan, alert to any move by China against Taiwan.
Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., said the White House was "very carefully and methodically" building support in Congress for military action in Iraq. "Obviously, Congress will have to be involved," he said.
But some senior lawmakers warn that they are not yet ready to endorse war on Iraq.
Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said "there is overwhelming support for the proposition that Saddam Hussein should be removed from power. But there is incredible division about how to do that. People in the administration are even divided about the how. "
Biden said that to get his support, the administration first would have to make "a complete and thorough case" that Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction, and also lay out a vision of what a post-Saddam Iraq would look like.
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Bush had not met fundamental conditions for war against Iraq.
For Congress to support military action, Levin said, the administration would have to produce evidence of a direct link between Hussein and bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist network or evidence that the Iraqi dictator intends to use weapons of mass destruction.
"If either of those things is true, I think people would be supportive," Levin said.
Finally, Levin said, the administration must demonstrate that the United States would act as part of an international coalition.
"People want to know whether a coalition would hold together, or whether it would undermine the coalition we have going now," Levin said.
Bush also has to rally Europe, where even staunch allies such as Great Britain are not yet on board.
German Defense Minister Rudolf Scharping said this week that diplomatic pressure should be used to get weapons inspectors back into Iraq before any military action. "Anyone who began with military means would be starting at the wrong end," he said.
In Britain, a member of Prime Minister Tony Blair's Cabinet suggested she might resign if her government supported a U.S.-led war against Iraq. "To open up a military flank on Iraq would be very unwise," said International Development Secretary Clare Short.
Home Secretary David Blunkett reportedly warned Blair that the country could face civil disturbances if it backed war against Iraq. Fifty-one percent of Britons oppose supporting a U.S.-led war, with or without British military participation, according to a poll for the Guardian newspaper in London.
Bush also must find some way to reduce the violence between Israel and Palestinian Arabs to win support from other Arab leaders for a U.S. move against Iraq, as Vice President Dick Cheney learned during his recent trip through the Middle East.
Arab leaders told Cheney they feared reprisals from their people if they sided with the United States while their people think the United States is siding with Israel against Palestinian Arabs. A new war against Iraq would inflame Arab populations with unpredictable consequences in a region that is still crucial to the world's supply of oil.
Americans solidly support expanding the war to Iraq, though they don't expect it to happen quickly and prefer that their government first get international support.
In a recent survey, 70 percent of Americans said they think the United States should use military action to topple Saddam, while 23 percent opposed it, according to a recent poll for CNN and Time. (The poll of 1,014 adults had a margin of error of 3 percentage points.)
Their support drops slightly if the United States would have to act without international support. Support for war against Iraq without Arab backing drops to 61 percent, while opposition rises to 32 percent. Support for war without backing from European allies drops further to 55 percent, while opposition rises to 39 percent.
Perhaps mindful of the need to build that international support, Americans only narrowly think the United States will move against Iraq within the next six months, by 49 percent to 43 percent.
(c) 2002, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.