WASHINGTON—War plans are on the president's desk. Troops and arms are moving toward the Persian Gulf. Resolutions authorizing President Bush to use military force against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein are before Congress and the United Nations.
Within months, the United States could be at war with Iraq. If so, it will be a conflict unique in the nation's 226-year history, launched not in response to an attack, but to prevent one. Bush's aim is to topple a dictator armed with germs and poisons.
He appears to have the backing of Congress, a majority of Americans (only if he goes through the United Nations) and increasingly, though reluctantly, the international community. Few doubt that the unmatched U.S. military would prevail—sooner or later.
But major questions seem unresolved as war approaches. Here's a look at the central questions in this debate.
Q. What is the threat to the American people from Iraq?
A. Bush says he fears Iraq might give weapons of mass destruction to terrorists. They might inflict damage on the United States far more horrific than the Sept. 11 attacks, while hiding Iraq's role.
"The danger is . . . that al-Qaida becomes an extension of Saddam's madness and his hatred and his capacity to extend weapons of mass destruction around the world," the president said Wednesday.
But many independent experts question whether Saddam would do this, and say Iraq's ties to terrorist groups such as al-Qaida are tenuous at best. What's more, Iraq has not threatened the United States in recent years.
Intelligence agencies and most independent analysts in the West agree that Saddam never stopped trying to develop weapons of mass destruction, despite agreeing to disarm after the 1991 Persian Gulf War. (Weapons of mass destruction, or WMD, include nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and long-range ballistic missiles to deliver them).
_ Nuclear weapons: After the Persian Gulf War, U.N. inspectors discovered that Saddam had been far closer to having a nuclear weapon than Western intelligence agencies knew. He is not believed to have one now, although he is still trying.
The British government said in a report on Iraq's WMD that Saddam's regime could produce a nuclear weapon in one to two years if it obtained bomb-grade fuel, either highly enriched uranium or plutonium. The International Institute for Strategic Studies, a London-based research center, said Iraq could have a nuclear weapon in a few months if it had the right ingredients.
_ Chemical and biological weapons: Iraq used chemical weapons in its war with Iran and against its own Kurdish population. It never disclosed the full extent of its biological weapons program to U.N. weapons inspectors.
The British report says Iraq is continuing to develop both and has mobile biological weapons laboratories. Iraq has military plans for the use of chemical and biological weapons, and could deploy them within 45 minutes of an order to do so, the report says.
Saddam—whose Ba'ath Party regime is decidedly secular and nationalist—has had few ties historically with violent Islamists such as Osama bin Laden. No link has been proved between Iraq and the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
Only in the last week has the White House emphasized such a link.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, for example, said there was "credible evidence" that al-Qaida leaders had sought Iraq's help in acquiring weapons of mass destruction.
But those reports appear to be far from confirmed. And in the past, Iraq's terrorist activities were focused on eliminating Iraqi opponents of Saddam's regime abroad and sheltering Palestinian radicals, whose target was Israel.
In a recent meeting in Baghdad with Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz recalled past bad blood between Iraq and bin Laden. When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, bin Laden tried to convince Saudi Arabia to let him and his network of Afghan war veterans fight the Iraqis so that it would not be necessary to bring the American military to bases in Saudi Arabia, the guardian of Islam's holy sites.
Aziz, a top Saddam aide, ridiculed the notion that Iraq would give terrorists WMD to attack the United States. "Don't we expect a retaliation that will wipe Iraq from the face of the planet? How can we do that?" he asked.
Many outside experts question whether the distrustful and ruthless leader would share his most prized possessions with anyone, much less Islamic terrorists who might turn on his secular regime.
Saddam is widely believed to have striven so hard to obtain nuclear and other weapons in order to make himself undisputed leader of the Arab world and a counterbalance to Israel.
"He is a control freak. He doesn't give things like that away," said Judith Yaphe, a former CIA specialist on Iraq who's now at the Pentagon's National Defense University.
Q. How long will it take to win a war with Iraq, and at what cost?
A. The way the Pentagon sees it, the war to oust Saddam is as good as won.
"Our joint war-fighting team, in concert with our partners, can and will decisively defeat Iraqi military forces," Gen. Richard G. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, assured members of Congress on Sept. 18.
Since its 1991 defeat, the Iraqi military has shrunk as much as 60 percent. U.S. forces, meanwhile, have been sharpened by wars in the Balkans and Afghanistan, and armed with weaponry so advanced that fewer than 40 aircraft can smash the same number of targets that it took some 450 planes to destroy a decade ago.
Yet it is precisely because of that massive American advantage that Saddam is expected to avoid a conventional confrontation and instead resist his ouster in ways that could exact a huge human and economic toll on the United States and its allies and destabilize the region.
"There are lots of opportunities for the scenario depicted in the war plan to head off in different directions," warned Andrew Krepinevich, a former Pentagon planner who heads the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a nonpartisan defense research center.
Saddam and his elite Republican Guard could make a last stand in Baghdad or other cities, forcing American troops to fight bloody street-by-street contests. Huge civilian casualties could ignite terrorist attacks on U.S. targets elsewhere and mass uprisings against pro-American regimes across the Islamic world.
Another "nightmare scenario" is Iraqi chemical or biological attacks on U.S. forces as they assemble at bases in Kuwait, Qatar and Turkey or move toward Baghdad.
"Certainly there are ways to mitigate the risk of a chemical or biological attack, but it cannot be entirely eliminated," Rumsfeld has admitted.
It is uncertain whether American troops are adequately prepared for large-scale chemical or biological attacks, despite advances in protection, detection and treatment.
As of last October, the U.S. military "had not fully addressed weaknesses and gaps in modeling, planning, training, tracking or proficiency testing for the treatment of CB (chemical and biological) casualties," warned a 2001 report by the Government Accounting Office, a congressional watchdog agency.
American military planners plan to capture or destroy Saddam's known and suspected chemical and germ stockpiles and delivery systems.
To neutralize stocks that can't be found, the Pentagon is planning an information warfare operation to warn Iraqi commanders that they will be tried for war crimes if they obey orders to loose germ- or chemical-laden bombs or missiles.
Yet there are no guarantees the strategy will succeed: Any Iraqi officer who balks at Saddam's order to use a weapon of mass destruction risks an immediate bullet.
Another "imponderable" is what could happen if Saddam launches germ-carrying SCUD missiles at Israel or smuggles germ bombs to Palestinian suicide bombers. An Israeli counterpunch could ignite a war throughout the world's main oil-producing region as Arab regimes rally to Iraq's defense.
Q. What will happen to Iraq after Saddam?
A. The Bush administration contends the Iraqi people would welcome Saddam's overthrow and that with Western support they could create a representative government that would be a model for the Middle East.
In the worst-case scenario, the multi-ethnic country that Saddam has held together by terror and force could fracture, triggering a tsunami of bloodshed that could engulf American forces and upset the regional balance of power.
The country's majority, Arabs who belong to Islam's Shiite sect, could avenge years of oppression with a bloodbath against the ruling Arab Sunni Muslims and set up an Islamic-style republic in southern Iraq aligned with neighboring Iran.
Meanwhile, the large Kurdish minority might try to form a long-sought republic within Iraq. That could trigger an invasion by neighboring Turkey, which fears that its own Kurdish separatists could be enflamed by a large Kurdish republic on its border.
Unlike Afghanistan, Iraq is not an economic basket case. It has a highly educated populace and an estimated $20 billion in oil revenue annually.
But even after the United States won militarily, American and allied troops and civilians could be in Iraq for years, helping to set up a new government and carrying out long-term economic reconstruction.
"It will take time, and I can't tell you how many years," Secretary of State Colin Powell told a Senate committee. "We recognize that we are on the cusp of a very, very demanding and long-term commitment if we have to go down this road."
Warned Robert Killebrew, a retired Army colonel and defense consultant: "If we mishandle this thing, Iraq could become a recruiting ground for al Qaida. We can't afford massive instability in Iraq."
Q. Why has Bush made Iraq his top priority now?
A. The Sept. 11 attacks fundamentally altered Bush's worldview and reinforced his belief that his top priority as president is to protect the American people. Although Iraq had long been considered a threat to international security, the terrorist attacks transformed a latent problem into an urgent White House concern.
Determined to avoid a repeat of Sept. 11, Bush concluded he could no longer postpone a showdown with Iraq. Although the case against Iraq remained largely circumstantial, Bush and his advisers decided the safest course was to assume the worst and act accordingly.
An active group of Iraqi exiles also lobbied the White House, saying support for Saddam would crumble if the United States attacked.
The Bush family also has a personal reason to go after Saddam. In 1993, Kuwaiti authorities foiled an Iraqi plan to assassinate the elder George Bush. "This is a guy that tried to kill my dad," President Bush told a Houston audience Thursday night.
Regime change in Iraq also could give the United States another secure source of oil and open the world's second-largest proved oil reserves to American energy companies.
The first public hint that Iraq was in the White House crosshairs came last Nov. 21, when Bush told soldiers at Fort Campbell, Ky., that "Afghanistan is just the beginning" of the war on terrorism. Five days later, he named Iraq as a potential target, but added that he wanted to finish the fight in Afghanistan first.
However, the war on terrorism is far from over. Many top leaders of the Taliban and al-Qaida escaped and remain at large.
Bush's timetable also means that the Iraq issue is coming to a head just in time for the November elections, giving Republicans a chance to talk about something other than the ailing economy. The president says the timing is a coincidence.
(c) 2002, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099):
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20020927 USIRAQ forces and 20020927 ISIRAQ sig, with the words "Showdown With Iraq."