Gulf war could be months away

The Age 01/14/03: Charles Aldinger

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Despite the new year's flow of thousands of American troops to the Gulf, political and logistical pressure could delay any invasion of Iraq for months, US officials and defence experts said on Monday.

"Those soldiers can't just hit the sand shooting on arrival. I wouldn't expect anything in February, or even early March. And who knows what the political landscape will be then." one US official said.

He and other officials, who asked not to be identified, spoke as international pressure grew for Washington to put off any invasion of Iraq. The issue is also complicated by Iraq's suffocating summer heat and sandstorms, in which the US military would prefer not to wage war.

Military analysts said they did not expect an immediate attack but warned that the Bush administration had painted itself into a difficult corner with the new troop movements.

Michael Vickers, of the Centre for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, said if sending troops resulted in diplomatic concessions from Iraq, it would still be a triumph for the US. "Then there's no egg on your face. You say the threat worked - you avoided war and got something for it, even if it cost billions of dollars," he said. But former assistant defence secretary Larry Korb, said the build-up could soon reach a point of "use it or lose it".

"I believe the administration expected to be in a position by the end of this month to go or not go. But it looks longer now. And that's tough politically," he said.

Despite repeated warnings to Iraq's President Saddam Hussein, the White House stressed that President George Bush had set no exact timetable by which arms inspections of Iraq must be completed. "The President thinks it remains important for the inspectors to do their job and have time to do their job," presidential spokesman Ari Fleischer said on Monday.

Despite Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld last week signing two orders to send an additional 67,000 troops to the Gulf, defence officials believe it could still be months before action begins in the region.

"Even if you get the troops there, big logistical tasks remain in getting them married up with tanks and other equipment and getting them ready to pull together and fight a war," said one US defence official.

In Rome yesterday, Pope John Paul II expressed his strongest opposition yet to a potential war in Iraq, urging world leaders to resolve disputes with Iraq through diplomatic means.

"War is not always inevitable... it is always a defeat for humanity," he said.

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