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Saddam wants war to drag on as long as possible

WASHINGTON—The longer the war continues, the more political trouble the Bush administration will face at home and abroad.

A lengthy war could keep oil prices high, halt economic recovery and plague the administration with public fears of involvement in a foreign quagmire.

Saddam Hussein is trying to drag the war on for as long as possible, in the hope that U.S. casualties will mount and Americans will turn against the war.

Neighboring Arab leaders, who are cooperating with the United States, fear that anger against America may soon turn on them.

But with U.S. troops still facing stiff resistance, the White House is trying to dampen expectations of a quick war.

As the clock ticks, some national security experts say Saddam may be taking heart from the round-the-clock news reports beamed around the world and into U.S. living rooms.

"He is hearing Western journalists, particularly American journalists, describe skirmishes as `massive battles' and describing 10 or a dozen killed in action as `heavy casualties,'" said Kenneth M. Pollack, a former CIA analyst and proponent of the U.S.-led war.

The reporting reinforces Saddam's belief that Americans do not have the fortitude for a bloody conflict, he said, even if that is an inaccurate reading of U.S. public will.

"All of this has made him very hopeful that if he can just keep this going for a little bit longer, he will reach that casualty threshold, that crossover point, where we will be forced basically to throw in the towel," Pollack said.

Elsewhere in the Arab world, the prospect of a longer war, with more civilian casualties and damage to Iraq's infrastructure, distresses many rulers who have given quiet cooperation to Washington while their angry citizens turn to the streets to protest a U.S.-led war that they believe is being waged for oil, or empire, or for Israel.

"They are in a bind," said Shibley Telhami, a Middle East expert at the University of Maryland. "The more angry the public is with America, the more angry it is with them."

In Jordan and Egypt, vital U.S. allies in an unsettled region, massive protests have erupted, and Arabs throughout the Middle East overwhelmingly view the war as an unjust U.S. attack on a neighboring capital and a grab for Iraq's oil resources.

Jordanians held 55 demonstrations in the opening days of the war, and openly speak about their disgust with the Bush administration. Protesters have scheduled four demonstrations for Friday.

"America should stop this war, not for us, but for the American mothers whose sons are being killed," said Rowan Hajar, 18, a student at Jordan University in Amman.

In the weeks before the war, Jordan declared itself the "best friend" of Washington in the region. But once the war began, the government said it was "angry" about the conflict, and King Abdullah stated repeatedly that he is reaching out to the international community to stop the war.

A drawn-out war is "a goad to the populations in surrounding states," said Edward Walker, a former ambassador to Egypt and the United Arab Emirates and president of the Middle East Institute, a policy research center in Washington.

In nations such as Pakistan, with an overwhelmingly Muslim population, "this is handing the fundamentalists a recruiting tool. They can polarize the population," Walker said.

Even as leaders of Muslim nations fear crossing the Bush administration, and want the war to end quickly, they'd like to see the United States get a comeuppance on the battlefield to thwart further military action in the region, Telhami said.

"Many of them see this as episode one of a nightmarish serial. They want the ratings to be so bad that episode two and episode three won't be shown."

Both Washington and London face inflamed anti-war protests around the globe and unsettled moods at home. Leaders in both countries have shifted the emphasis this week to say that the war will be longer and costlier than officials led the public to believe.

U.S. officials say they are not to blame for the notion that the war would end swiftly.

"Nobody should have expected that it would suddenly all be over on day one or day two," Secretary of State Colin Powell said this week. "Unfortunately, that kind of hype is created within the media."

But the Pentagon has promoted news reports of its overwhelming military might, and a planned bombing campaign of "shock and awe." Senior U.S. officials themselves have added to the impression that Saddam's army would fold.

Just three days before the war's onset, Vice President Dick Cheney forecast that the Iraqi army would put up no struggle, and that elements of the elite Republican Guard were "likely to step aside" from a steamrolling U.S. military.

Polls give President Bush strong support, and that support is likely to be resilient for several more weeks into the campaign. Still, the White House feels the pressure to act quickly.

"The faster the better, as far as the administration is concerned," said Ross K. Baker, a scholar of U.S. politics at Rutgers University in New Jersey. "Anything more than a month, people would start getting edgy, members of Congress would get edgy."

"Time is not on the president's side," Baker added.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair was asked at a news conference Thursday at the presidential retreat at Camp David why he and Bush are now forecasting a longer war. Blair said wall-to-wall news reports obscure the fact that the military campaign is still young.

"You've got this constant 24-hours-a-day media," Blair said. "It may seem to people that it's a lot longer than just under a week. But actually, it's just under a week. And in just under a week, there is a massive amount that has already been achieved."

During a speech to troops at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla., on Wednesday, President Bush varied from a prepared text of a speech, deleting a phrase that the war was "ahead of schedule."

Experts say new military technology has compressed wars, while new technology can give news coverage of the wars a breathless, accelerated quality, affecting public mood.

"Public opinion and public mood can shift faster than it could in the old days," said Peter D. Feaver, an expert on public opinion during wartime at Duke University.


(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Nancy A. Youssef contributed to this report from Amman, Jordan.)


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