WASHINGTON -- Suppose Iraq's President Saddam Hussein decided to pull his 250,000 troops out of Kuwait. How long would it take? The answer is a few hours to a few months, depending on his reason for leaving.
President Bush has said that a withdrawal would be a "massive undertaking" and would have to begin well before the Jan. 15 deadline set by the United Nations if that deadline for withdrawal were to be met.
That is one reason cited for the refusal so far of Secretary of State James A. Baker III to meet with Mr. Hussein as late as Jan. 12, the date insisted on by the Iraqis.
Military and other government specialists canvassed yesterday said they thought the Iraqi forces could make a very swift departure, say in three to five days, if ordered to do so.
If, on the other hand, Mr. Hussein decided on a politically motivated withdrawal, he could drag it out for perhaps four months -- all the while watching and assessing the effects his gesture was having on the coalition of forces arrayed against him.
This could be part of the "nightmare scenario" that Washington has worried about. With such withdrawals under way, it might become increasingly difficult to get agreement on the use of force against him or to get him entirely out of Kuwait.
The Iraqi forces now mobilized in what Washington calls the Kuwaiti Theater of Operations total 510,000 troops, the Pentagon says. It says about half are in Kuwait and the other half are deployed in Iraq.
These forces have 4,000 tanks, 2,500 armored troop carriers and 2,700 artillery pieces, by the Pentagon's count.
In Kuwait, the Iraqis continue to build and upgrade fortifications and to plant minefields, the Pentagon says.
If this is seen as a formidably large force to remove in a hurry, DTC government specialists point out that the invasion army moved 40,000 troops from the Iraqi border to Kuwait City in two hours on Aug. 2, and in another six hours had units at the Saudi border. In three days, 100,000 troops were moved into Kuwait.
If there were now a decision to go the other way in a great hurry, the sources said, Iraq ought to be able to do it in three to five days.
Mr. Hussein could get his troops out even faster than that, maybe in a day, it was reckoned, if he were convinced that B-52 bombers were about to visit Baghdad and that a pullout would stop the bombs.
More likely in present circumstances, some sources thought, would be a dragged-out withdrawal intended to have favorable political results from Mr. Hussein's standpoint.
He might pull back a few troops or a few units at a time, looking for the gesture to be seen as a harbinger of his willingness to strike a bargain, to negotiate, to compromise.
Some in the coalition might then see his acts as a compelling argument against using force, perhaps sorely testing Mr. Bush's assertions that there would be no compromises.