WASHINGTON — Aides to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld have created a special Iraq planning unit, composed largely of civilians, to oversee a military campaign against Saddam Hussein, the latest sign that President Bush is methodically preparing an invasion to oust the Iraqi leader.
The existence of the planning operation in the defense secretary's office, confirmed by two individuals, comes as the Bush administration has toughened its anti-Saddam rhetoric and launched new efforts to unify the ever-fractious Iraqi opposition.
In the field, the U.S. Air Force is nearing completion of a state-of-the-art airbase in the tiny Persian Gulf nation of Qatar that could be used to run an air war over Iraq if Saudi Arabia denied the use of its soil. Commercial satellite imagery of the al-Udeid airbase appeared on television and in some newspapers this week.
In perhaps the most telling sign of Bush's intentions, top U.S. officials and members of the Iraqi opposition are plotting the details of a post-Saddam government in Iraq, right down to the number of seats in a future parliament.
U.S. officials told the notoriously fractious opposition groups in meetings this week and last that Washington backs democracy in Iraq, not another military strong-man, once President Saddam Hussein is gone.
"We are convinced ... that the U.S. government is united in its determination to bring about regime change in Iraq and what we certainly welcomed was the assertion that they are not interested in risking American lives to replace a dictator with another," said Barham Salih, a leader of one of two factions in the autonomous Kurdish zone in northern Iraq. "Regime change" is the code word for overthrowing Saddam.
The Kurds have reason to doubt American resolve. After the Gulf War in 1991, Bush's father urged Saddam's opponents to rise up, but he withheld military support when the Iraqi dictator crushed his enemies.
Bush national security adviser Condoleezza Rice on Thursday laid out a case for a preemptive strike against Saddam.
"Clearly if Saddam Hussein is left in power doing the things that he is doing now this is a threat that will emerge, and emerge in a very big way," Rice told the British Broadcasting Corp.
"History is littered with cases of inaction that led to ... grave consequences for the world," she said. "We just have to look back and ask how many dictators who ended up being a tremendous global threat and killing thousands and, indeed, millions of people, should we have stopped in their tracks."
Conservatives in Rumsfeld's office, including Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, have been among the most outspoken proponents of overthrowing Saddam. The new planning unit would coordinate the non-military and political aspects of any campaign, as opposed to drawing up actual invasion plans.
U.S. government spokesmen continue to say, as they have for months, that Bush has made no decision about whether to use military force against Saddam.
The flurry of leaks of proposed U.S. invasion plans for Iraq might be intended to keep Saddam guessing at U.S. strategy.
"The idea that some of this is to keep him off balance -- that's a reasonable hypothesis," said one U.S. government expert in such psychological operations, speaking on condition of anonymity.
There's good reason to keep Saddam guessing so he doesn't deploy defenses, or preemptively attack Israel with chemical, biological or nuclear weapons. Since Saddam would know the goal is his overthrow, rather than liberating Kuwaiti territory as in the last war, he would have less incentive to show restraint.
For that reason, a U.S. strike on Saddam likely will come roughly three weeks before anyone expects it, said one individual close to the military planning. He also spoke on condition of anonymity.
The tough rhetoric from Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Rumsfeld and others could unintentionally box in the administration.
If Bush does not follow up on his threats to remove Saddam, his credibility -- and that of the United States -- could suffer.
"They've really now put themselves out on a limb. ... The president's credibility is at issue," said a former U.S. government expert on the region, who expects a U.S. invasion early next year. "If he doesn't do this, he looks stupid."
White House rhetoric and news reports about war plans also have prompted vocal opposition from notable figures in Bush's party, including House Majority Leader Rep. Dick Armey and former vice presidential candidate Jack Kemp.
Retired Gen. Brent Scowcroft, the elder Bush's national security adviser who was once Rice's boss, wrote in the Wall Street Journal on Thursday that he opposed an attack on Iraq. Because of international opposition, he said, it would "seriously jeopardize, if not destroy, the global counterterrorist campaign we have undertaken."
Yet even the State Department, which along with the uniformed military has been skeptical of an attack on Iraq, appears to be falling into line behind Bush.
The department is resuming funding to the Iraqi National Congress, an umbrella opposition group that some U.S. officials have called ineffectual, and re-energizing plans for a conference of Saddam's opponents.
"The 'when,' that's the thing," a State Department official said of Bush's goal of "regime change" in Iraq. "It's important to do it and it's important to do it right."