WASHINGTON—With President Bush signaling this week that he is ready to go to war in Iraq, the paths to a peaceful outcome in the Persian Gulf are few and have little chance of success, according to U.S. officials, foreign diplomats and private analysts.
Many observers, including Bush's aides, predict a flurry of last-minute international diplomacy as well as concessions by Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein aimed at avoiding an American-led military strike.
But it would take an extraordinary event—a "miracle," in the words of one former U.S. official—to divert Bush and Saddam from a head-on collision, say these analysts, most of whom have been through repeated crises with Iraq over the last 12 and a half years.
"I think it's practically impossible at this point to avoid conflict," said former weapons inspector David Kay, echoing a widespread sentiment in Washington and the assessment of Arab envoys who have visited the White House recently.
The only thing that would prevent a war now is "a bullet or a Travelocity ticket" for Saddam and his family, Kay said at a forum organized by the Brookings Institution, a prominent Washington research center.
He referred to an internal coup against Saddam or the Iraqi leader's acceptance of exile for himself and his inner circle. Neither Arab leaders who know Saddam nor the CIA thinks either scenario likely.
"Either is possible. Neither is probable," said a U.S. intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Based on his past behavior, Saddam is likely to offer significant new concessions on weapons inspections when he meets with U.N. inspections chief Hans Blix this weekend. Blix is due to give a fresh report to the U.N. Security Council next Friday that, as far as Bush is concerned, may spell the end of attempts to disarm Iraq peacefully.
Saddam is, by all accounts, a careful student of the Security Council, and he probably will aim to divide it further, bolstering the positions of France, Russia and other nations who oppose the use of force, at least for now.
France, Germany, Russia and other countries argue that the inspectors should have more time and more tools to do their job.
A declaration by Blix next Friday that Iraqi cooperation is much improved and the inspections should continue might make it more difficult for Bush to argue that only force can disarm Iraq.
"I would not be surprised if Blix came back saying he (Saddam) has abided" by demands that Iraq show much greater cooperation with the inspectors, said an Arab diplomat, who held out some hope for avoiding war and who also asked not to be identified.
Saddam already appears to have ceded on one point after Secretary of State Colin Powell's U.N. presentation Wednesday of evidence Iraq is deceiving the inspectors. On Thursday, Saddam permitted the first interview of an Iraqi weapons scientist by the inspectors without a government minder present.
Saddam "is an incurable optimist" who is confident of his ability to "wiggle out" of a jam at the last minute, said Amatzia Baram, a noted scholar and author on Iraq.
But while the Iraqi leader will make some concessions on technical issues, Baram said, he is unlikely to make the full-scale capitulation that Bush is demanding. To do so would mean reversing years of denials that Iraq is hiding chemical, biological or nuclear weapons.
"Humiliation for this regime . . . is a very difficult issue" and could make Saddam look weak in the eyes of the Iraqi people, Baram said at the Brookings forum.
In any case, Baram said, Saddam won't approach his moment of truth until the very last minute, probably after the U.N. Security Council passes another resolution threatening military force. "This will be the most difficult decision of his life. . . . He will know he is practically looking into the abyss."
By then it may be too late.
Bush and his senior advisers say that while they would like another resolution, they don't think they need one. And that if there is a new resolution, it shouldn't contain new warnings or deadlines, but merely give backing to a U.S.-led invasion.
"It would need . . . to express that this is the time for action to be taken, for serious consequences. This cannot be another delaying tactic," Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, said in an interview on CNN.
For Iraq to avoid war, Saddam "would need to come completely clean," Rice said. "I think the world will now be very skeptical of any 11th-hour efforts that he makes to pretend that he is complying."
Bush put it more bluntly. "The game is over," he said Thursday.
In another sign that war may be almost certain, Arab leaders who have played an intermediary role in previous crises have been relatively inactive.
Many Arab emissaries already are focused on what comes after a war and the United States' long-term goals in the Middle East, not on saving Saddam.
The region's leaders have tentatively planned an Arab League meeting to discuss Iraq in late February or early March, but some are having second thoughts, according to a former U.S. official with high-level Middle East contacts. The leaders don't want to hold a meaningless conference, said the former official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Saudi Arabia and Qatar have approached Saddam with a proposal that he go into exile, but without expecting him to accept it.
Baram said there was a less than 50 percent chance that Saddam would capitulate completely on his weapons of mass destruction. But even that is more likely than the Iraqi leader "abdicating and going abroad," he said.
Michael O'Hanlon, another participant in the Brookings forum, said Powell's inclusion of alleged links between Baghdad and al-Qaida in his U.N. presentation showed Bush was ready to make the case for invading Iraq in self-defense.
"They know they're going to war," O'Hanlon said, and there is "almost nothing Saddam can do to change the situation."
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.