Building up the pressure
Washington insists its military build-up in the Gulf is to maintain pressure on Iraq and that no decision has been made about military action, reports Khaled Dawoud from Washington
Last week's accusation by US Secretary of State Colin Powell that Iraq was in "material breach" of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1441 was the first bang in a new round of war drums playing in Washington. And without the Christmas and New Year holidays the ratcheting up of the pro-war campaign could have been much more intense, observers and diplomats believe.
Come the new year lost time will be quickly made up, with plans already declared to double the number of US troops in the region from 50,000 to 100,000, increasing pressure on Turkey to accept the deployment of US troops on its territory, providing military training to Iraqi opposition soldiers in northern Iraq, and quietly building up a coalition of "mindful nations" to provide international cover when the time comes to use force.
US officials expect this coalition to include Canada, Britain, Australia, Italy, Spain, Denmark, Portugal, former Eastern European states eager to win Washington's heart and money such as Romania, Bulgaria, Poland and Hungary and two Arab countries, Kuwait and Qatar. Washington has also been encouraged by France's sharp criticism of Iraq's dossier and still expects Germany to offer help in any war effort despite its declared stand opposing war.
The US build-up is likely to continue to the end of January when United Nations weapons inspectors are due to present their first detailed assessment of Iraqi compliance with Resolution 1441. The current consensus in Washington is that the most likely date for any assault on Iraq is between mid- to late February.
A "psychological campaign" aimed at further undermining the already damaged reputation of the Iraqi regime is also likely. Reports on efforts by the Iraqi regime to secretly purchase components needed to build up nuclear weapons, and its horrendous plans to kill and starve its own people as soon as war starts in order to blame the US for their suffering, will proliferate.
US officials, denying any final decision has been made on the use of force, insist their strategy is to maintain pressure on the Iraqi regime to fully comply with the US-drafted Resolution 1441.
Despite the overheated rhetoric coming from Washington -- it immediately dubbed Iraq's 12,000-page declaration a "failure" -- many analysts argue the stage is far from set for Washington to occupy Iraq and oust the present regime.
Military experts estimate the US will need 200,000 to 250,000 troops to carry out plans to occupy parts of north and south Iraq and then proceed towards Baghdad. Meanwhile, the US continues to lack support on the international level, let alone at home, to deploy such massive numbers. No other permanent Security Council member has backed Washington's claim that the Iraqi weapons' declaration represented a "material breach" and Washington is facing growing pressure to make public the evidence it claims to possess proving Iraq lied in its weapons report. And while US officials declared this week they would start cooperating with UN weapons inspectors they conceded that "nothing substantial" would be handed to the inspectors during the first stage of cooperation.
On Monday US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld underlined Washington's strategy of increasing the pressure on Baghdad. "The moment Saddam and his ruling clique feel that they're out of danger they will undoubtedly see no incentive to comply with their international obligations. That is why, after the passage of Resolution 1441, the US and coalition countries are continuing to take steps to keep pressure on the regime."
Those "steps" include continued patrols over the north and south no-fly zones, developing a humanitarian relief and reconstruction plan for post-Saddam Iraq, working with the Iraqi opposition amid preparations for a post-Saddam transition, and working with friends and allies, through joint military exercises like the one held recently in Qatar, to keep military pressure on Iraq.
Rumsfeld said "none of these steps reflect a decision by the president or the United Nations or anyone else, to my knowledge, to use force. Rather, they are intended to support the diplomatic efforts that are under way... and to make clear to the Iraqi regime that they need to comply with their UN obligations."
Rumsfeld sought to downplay reports that President Bush has approved plans to double US troops in the Gulf by the first week of January. Nor did he make a big fuss over Iraq's shooting down a US Predator on a spy mission over southern Iraq on Monday, saying this was not the first time the Iraqi army had had a "lucky shot".
US officials have also suggested that the increasing pressure strategy could result in a sudden coup against Saddam Hussein, or defection by key Iraqi scientists who could reveal more secrets on Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction. In this respect US officials are still working, with the weapons inspectors, on arrangements to summon Iraqi scientists and their families for questioning outside Iraq. Hans Blix, as well as US officials, concedes this is not an easy mission, especially when it comes to defining how many family members each scientist would be allowed to escort out of Iraq.
Pentagon officials also believe that the military build- up will weaken the morale of Iraqi soldiers. "The fact of the matter is in the Gulf War 70,000 to 80,000 of the Iraqi Army surrendered almost instantaneously, in a matter of hours and days. I would -- I think it's not unreasonable to -- suspect that the same might occur in even larger numbers in this instance," Rumsfeld said on Monday.