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Bush administration moves ahead with plans to oust Hussein, 7/28/02

WASHINGTON—As the Bush administration presses ahead with plans to oust Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, some of America's staunchest allies are beginning to raise doubts about the enterprise.

On Sunday, Jordan's King Abdullah II, one of America's staunchest Arab allies, questioned the wisdom of attacking Iraq while the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues to rage unchecked.

"The problem is, trying to take on the question of Iraq with the lack of positive movement on the Israeli-Palestinian, Israeli-Arab track seems, at this point, somewhat ludicrous," said Abdullah, whose kingdom has a large and restive Palestinian population.

Speaking on CNN's "Late Edition," Abdullah also denied speculation that the United States has begun sending troops to Jordan to prepare for an invasion of Iraq.

In Great Britain, America's staunchest ally in Europe and perhaps in the world, a new poll published on Sunday found that more than half the nation's people oppose sending British troops to join a U.S.-led campaign against Iraq. The poll of 1,763 people by the Sunday Times of London found that while 40 percent of Britons would support using British troops against Iraq, 51 percent are opposed.

There is less public but equally sharp opposition from other European and Arab leaders—and from some officials in the State Department, the CIA and the military. Like Abdullah, they worry that a U.S.-led invasion of an Arab country, even one led by a widely despised tyrant, would enflame the Arab world, strengthen radical Islamists and even threaten pro-Western rulers in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and elsewhere.

"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.

The skeptics also warn that ousting Saddam might tear apart the unruly nation of 23 million Shi'ite Muslims, Sunni Muslims and ethnic Kurds; strengthen Iran's influence in the Persian Gulf; and aggravate tensions between the Kurds in northern Iraq and Turkey, Syria and Iran.

Nevertheless, administration officials, led by aides to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney, are continuing to press for a 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 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.

But 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.

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."

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.


(c) 2002, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.