WASHINGTON -- A senior Bush administration official said yesterday that he couldn't see "any political justification" for delaying war against Iraq much beyond Jan. 15 if its forces have not been withdrawn from Kuwait by then.
The official, who is closely involved in Persian Gulf policy, said he saw no reason for waiting aside from purely military, tactical considerations, and he said he was "confident" that a consensus would be reached among anti-Iraq coalition partners supporting a U.S. decision to attack.
His comments were some of the bluntest from any administration official on the likelihood of war soon after the U.N.-imposed deadline on Iraq expires, although he and others
stressed that the president had not yet made a decision.
Noting that the deadline would mark 5 1/2 months since the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq, he said, "I see zero evidence to suggest that another couple of weeks or months or what have you will prove able to accomplish what the previous five months-plus did not accomplish. So I don't see where waiting has any political justification."
Right now, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein remains "far from convinced" that he faces a potentially devastating challenge, he said. Events between now and then could alter the situation, the official said, but "where I sit now, I feel a real sense of urgency. . . . I see no reason to assume I will not continue to feel that sense of urgency come Jan. 15.
"I don't like what's going on in Kuwait, and I see no reason to extend that agony; secondly, I don't like the economic price we and others are paying for this in terms of higher prices and the effect of sanctions and all that; thirdly, I don't like the fact that if we wait and we end up going to war, we could well pay for having waited with higher American casualties."
To these are added "contextual considerations," such as the approach of the Moslem period of Ramadan and the pilgrimage to Mecca next summer.
"In general, we read the considerations as arguing for a sense of urgency," he said.
A conflict, if it develops, would be "extremely intense" and not drawn-out, he said.
"It is our strong view, it is our belief and it would certainly be our intention that any engagement here would be of an intensity that by definition it would not be protracted."
While the United States remains open to sending Secretary of State James A. Baker III to Baghdad to meet with Mr. Hussein, "we're not going to run after him," the official said.
He said the administration feels it has the authority to launch military action without congressional authorization, although it would welcome a vote of congressional support. He said a vote aimed at forestalling an attack would be "extremely unlikely."
Separately yesterday, Representative Les Aspin, D-Wis., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said it was unlikely sanctions could force Iraq out of Kuwait. His position runs counter to that of the Senate Armed Services chairman, Sam Nunn, D-Ga.
Mr. Aspin said that a diplomatic effort backed by a credible threat of military action offered the best chance for a peaceful settlement.