White House hints at toppling Hussein Spokesman cautions on length of war WAR IN THE GULF

January 25, 1991|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,Washington Bureau of The Sun Gilbert A. Lewthwaite, chief of The Sun's London Bureau, contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON -- The White House said yesterday that the war in the Persian Gulf will probably take months and continued to hint that toppling Iraqi President Saddam Hussein from power is becoming a central objective.

While still vague, it was the first effort at putting any kind of time frame on the war and one that was prompted by grave concern that public expectations for a short, easy battle will quickly sour into disillusionment.

"We need to get on a kind of even keel in terms of our public psyche that allows us to accept the fact that this is going to last for some period of time," said White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater.

"We would prefer not to talk in terms of days or weeks but months because we think people need to be prepared for the idea that this is not going to be a short war."

Mr. Fitzwater also warned Americans to expect reports of "enemy victories" and "enemy surprises" and said that "there are going to be days that we'll see allied losses."

"We need to get into a frame of mind that allows us to accept those reverses and surges, but still keep track of the main thrust and our conviction that we'll win," he said.

The Bush administration insists it has not decided to target Mr. Hussein for capture or to demand that he surrender to survive.

But officials say they are keeping records of actions by Mr. Hussein that could be considered war crimes, with the expectation that he may be brought before an international tribunal at the war's end.

"When the time comes, he'll be held accountable," Mr. Fitzwater said. "But at this point, we can't say how that will be."

British Prime Minister John Major, Mr. Bush's closest ally in the gulf war, also indicated yesterday that the campaign to drive Mr. Hussein's forces out of Kuwait will not be complete if he is allowed to remain in power.

"You cannot return to the status quo," Mr. Major told his Conservative Party colleagues in the House of Commons. "Too much has been unsettled, and it was too much of a powder keg."

Meanwhile, administration efforts to keep nerves calm in both Israel and Jordan were reported to Mr. Bush yesterday to be on track, though neither nation offered any assurances that it would remain out of the conflict.

Israeli officials are making their decisions about retaliation for Iraqi Scud missile attacks on a "day-to-day" basis, a senior administration official said.

Their restraint so far is seen here as a good public relations move that has built sympathy for Israel.

Richard Armitage, the administration trouble-shooter who met with Jordan's King Hussein this week in what was described as a "temperature-taking session," also came back without any promises that Jordan will remain on the sidelines if Israel is drawn into the fray.

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