Is a war justifiably inevitable?

Conflict: To some, military force seems a foregone conclusion. Others say it's never too late to prevent a conflict.

March 09, 2003|By William R. Polk | William R. Polk,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

U.S. troops in Kuwait are poised to invade Iraq in a matter of days if not hours. Both sides regard war as inevitable. President Bush has declared that even Iraq's destruction of all remaining prohibited or questionable weapons will not deter him; only Saddam Hussein's removal might. Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz told me in a two-hour interview in Baghdad last month that "America has long since decided to attack Iraq, and nothing Iraq could do would prevent it."

After visiting Baghdad, I flew to Washington, where I found knowledgeable people split into two camps so divergent they seem to be seeing different worlds.

Senior U.S. officials portray an Iraq in concert with Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida, hell-bent on the destruction of America through the use of its store of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons while former and current State Department and CIA officials cast doubt on both the evidence and the analysis. Some even allege that the pro-war officials knew that they had no worthwhile evidence but withheld that knowledge from the public. They pointed out that what the administration regards as conclusive evidence rested on two foundations: what Iraqi defectors reportedly said and what satellite photos allegedly showed.

The most important defector, Lt. General Hussein Kamil, (Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's son-in-law, whom he executed for treason in 1996) was reported in the Feb. 24 edition of Newsweek as saying the opposite of what the American government quoted him as saying. He actually said "All weapons - biological, chemical, missile, nuclear - were destroyed." But he was quoted by the U. S. government as saying that Iraq had hidden them.

The British government's contribution to the evidence, advertised as based on secret intelligence sources and described by U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell to the U.N. Security Council as sophisticated and accurate, was universally ridiculed when it was shown to have been based on an essay by a university student from the United States who had never visited Iraq, and on articles previously published in the British press - some years ago.

What are we to make of the divergent views of the Bush-Blair camp, the highly experienced diplomatic and intelligence experts and officials of Iraq and other Arab states?

First, is war really inevitable? Second, if America attacks Iraq, what is likely to happen? And, third, what are the long-term consequences? Although these questions are of fundamental importance not only to Iraq but also to the health and well-being of Americans, they are rarely asked.

Many people in both Baghdad and Washington say it is too late even to ask the questions. To the contrary, we should have learned from the Vietnam war that we will spend years, perhaps decades, wishing we had answered them. Here are some of my answers.

War has actually started. Special forces and undercover agents, authorized by the White House to kill Hussein and overthrow his government, have been operating in Iraq for months. Three weeks ago, British and American aircraft started bombing Iraqi anti-aircraft and artillery installations in the south of Iraq. Nearly a quarter of a million American troops are now in place along the Kuwait-Iraqi frontier. A huge battle group including five carriers, each carrying about 50 aircraft, and over twenty other missile firing ships is already in the Persian Gulf and long-range B-52, B-1 and B-2 bombers are positioned to strike. Knowledgeable Americans in close touch with the White House and Pentagon have told me that the formal, and massive, campaign may begin in a few days, with or without the help of Turkey.

Meanwhile, in Baghdad, in what is regarded as a last-ditch effort to prevent the invasion, Hussein has begun the destruction of Iraq's remaining medium range missiles. The act was purely symbolic, Aziz told me. Iraqis believed it would not stop an attack. "The only reason the inspectors are here," he said, "is to give an excuse for what America has already decided to do. The war will come. We will not run away. But America may find a nasty surprise."

So consider a second question. What is likely to happen when America attacks? President Bush's pro-war advisers say that Iraqis so hate Hussein they will be out in the streets waving American flags when the troops arrive.

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