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Timetable on war with Iraq pushed back amid rising pressure

WASHINGTON—Even as U.S. troops and armor pour into the Persian Gulf, President Bush faces rising pressures on multiple fronts to slow down the momentum toward war.

As recently as a few weeks ago, senior Bush administration officials were suggesting that a U.S. invasion to oust Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein might begin soon after a pivotal report from United Nations' weapons inspectors on Jan. 27.

Now, the target date appears to have slipped to late February or early March at the soonest, U.S. officials and analysts say.

In the latest sign of a possible delay, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld is said to be leaning against a plan to begin a war in Iraq with bombing before all necessary U.S. ground forces are assembled in the Persian Gulf region. Those forces are not expected to be in place before mid-February.

The apparent rejection of that so-called "rolling start" option is just one of the diplomatic, military and domestic developments that could postpone the invasion start beyond the mid-winter date favored by Bush's more hawkish advisers.

"The idea that you start with a relatively modest force and flow forces in behind it seems to have been rejected and replaced by the British model of the Falklands" War, when Britain sent a large military force to reclaim the Falkland Islands from Argentina, said a senior defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix insisted this week that he needed until at least March to assess Iraq's willingness to disarm peacefully. "We have no such timeline on the work we do now," Blix said, when asked about U.S. troop deployments. "I am operating on my own timeline."

Concerned by public opinion hostile to a war, U.S. allies, including close Bush friend Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain, are counseling patience.

Neither Blix nor the U.S. government has made public a "smoking gun" showing Saddam is hiding banned weapons of mass destruction, which may be needed to galvanize world opinion.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan added his voice Tuesday to those urging more time be given to the weapons inspections.

"I don't think from where I stand we are at that stage yet," Annan replied when asked whether there should be an invasion even if no illicit weapons are found. "I think the inspectors are just getting up to full speed."

U.S. officials, eager to keep their options open, insist publicly that there never was a timetable for war.

Bush went out of his way Tuesday to dispute suggestions that the administration's determination toward Saddam is weakening.

"I'm sick and tired of games and deception," the president said. "I haven't seen any evidence that he has disarmed. Time is running out on Saddam Hussein. He must disarm."

In the final analysis, only Bush can decide when to send U.S. troops, tanks, missiles and jets into action.

Once all necessary U.S. forces are in the region, "it will be a daily decision for the president" about whether or not to launch an attack, said a State Department official, also speaking on condition of anonymity.

Former Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey, who commanded the 24th Infantry Division during the 1991 Gulf War, said he believes that the pressures on Bush to hold off on invading Iraq are "wisps of smoke in a jar."

"I think there has been a political decision to disarm Iraq that is irrevocable. I don't think there is a decision to do it by force yet," said McCaffrey. But he said he believes that Bush will choose that option if Saddam has not given up his illicit weapons by the end of February.

The rising political pressures against a swift invasion are all the more remarkable because they contrast with a rapidly expanding U.S. war machine in and around the Persian Gulf.

"The military track and the political track are really getting out of whack here," said Kenneth Pollack, a former CIA and White House expert on Iraq who consults with the Bush administration.

For now, the administration is in "classic muddle-through mode," avoiding a clear decision, Pollack said.

Rumsfeld signed two major deployment orders over the weekend, to dispatch 62,000 more Marines, Army soldiers and Air Force personnel to the region.

With those deployments, the number of American forces in the region is expected to grow to about 150,000 air, ground and naval forces in the next several weeks. An additional 100,000 are expected in the region by mid- to late February to be ready for a full-scale air and ground assault on Iraq.

Those deployments create a momentum of their own.

Some analysts suggest that American war planners must launch an attack before the end of February in order to conclude operations before the scorching heat of the Persian Gulf summer begins. Summer in Kuwait and Iraq begins in late May and lasts through August. Temperatures have been reported as high as 120 degrees.

But senior U.S. military officers in Kuwait dismiss the idea that U.S. forces face an arbitrary deadline imposed by the weather. Many of the troops in Kuwait who are preparing for war and others en route have already spent many months training there during the summer or in similar conditions in the California desert, where summertime temperatures are just as hot.

Fighting in the intense heat would impose some limitations on troops, said Maj. Gen. Buford C. Blount III, 3rd Infantry Division Commander. "But that would not be a reason for us not to do anything during summer," Blount said in an interview at Camp New York in the Kuwaiti desert.

Another complicating factor is the Hajj, the annual pilgrimage of hundreds of thousands of Muslims to the Prophet Mohammed's birthplace in Mecca. This year, it ends on Feb. 15, and for a week afterward air corridors in the Middle East will be busy with commercial jets carrying pilgrims homeward.

More than any other factor, public opinion here and abroad is complicating Bush's military calculations.

A national Knight Ridder poll released Sunday found that only about a third of Americans support a war against Iraq without backing from the United Nations and U.S. allies.

To gain that backing, Bush may need rock-solid proof that Saddam is lying when he says Iraq has no nuclear, chemical or biological weapons programs. So far, no such "smoking gun" has been made public and, on the surface at least, Iraq has cooperated with weapons inspectors.

Leaders in Turkey, Britain and across the Middle East, while not necessarily opposed to ousting Saddam, have citizens who are.

In the United States, tens of thousands of anti-war protesters from 40 states are due to converge on Washington this weekend.

"Enormous pressure exists against war in every country," said Tony Murphy, spokesman for the coalition organizing the protests.

Britain's Blair on Monday called for the inspectors to be given more time to do their job, saying their work should not be put on an "arbitrary timescale."

Diplomats said such statements were part of a coordinated effort by London and Washington to cool down media speculation that Blix's Jan. 27 report will trigger an invasion.

Conflict could also be averted if Saddam steps down and accepts exile, an outcome most observers think highly unlikely.

But Saudi Arabia is floating such an initiative with other Arab states, the State Department official said.

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(Knight Ridder correspondents Jessica Guynn, Jonathan S. Landay, Joseph L. Galloway and Drew Brown contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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