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U.S.: With UN Delays And Softer Rhetoric From Washington, Is Threat Of Iraq War Receding?

With major delays at the United Nations and a softened tone from U.S. President George W. Bush, the possibility of a U.S. war on Iraq any time soon may be in doubt. Analysts have long said any conflict must take place this winter to avoid the stifling heat of the Iraqi spring. But other observers disagree, and say America remains on a course for war -- regardless of what the UN does or doesn't do.

Washington, 23 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Is the threat of a United States war on Iraq receding? The oil markets -- and some analysts -- think so.

For the second straight day yesterday, world oil prices fell on the perception that war with Iraq has been averted following apparently conciliatory remarks made recently by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and President George W. Bush.

Bush's comment was his strongest indication yet that he could see Iraqi President Saddam Hussein staying in power -- provided he disarms peacefully.

Bush added that he doesn't believe Saddam will comply with United Nations conditions on disarming. But he offered an unlikely olive branch to Baghdad, one that appeared to fly in the face of a four-year-old U.S. law calling for "regime change" in Iraq and months of tough rhetoric from his administration: "If [Saddam] were to meet all the conditions of the United Nations -- conditions that I've described very clearly in terms that everybody can understand -- that in itself will signal the regime has changed."

Analysts largely agree that Bush's remark was probably diplomatic posturing intended to win over France and Russia. Those countries -- veto-wielding members of the United Nations Security Council -- oppose the wording of a new U.S. draft resolution on disarming Iraq, despite the fact that Washington softened its language.

The U.S. draft dropped any references to authorizing the use of force if Iraq fails to comply with UN arms inspectors. But it does provide some room for action if Baghdad seriously obstructs the inspectors.

U.S. officials have sought to play down Bush's comment. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said yesterday that there is absolutely no reason to believe that Saddam would ever comply with UN demands -- an assessment echoed by White House spokesman Ari Fleischer.

And State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said that regardless of the final wording of any new resolution from the Security Council, Bush will continue to have his options open: "In any case, the president retains his authority to do what's necessary along with like-minded governments, or however that should turn out."

Be that as it may, unilateral U.S. military action, an unpopular choice in American public opinion polls, would appear to be the last resort for the White House.

The diplomatic wrangling and delays at the UN, meanwhile, appear to complicate any eventual war with Iraq. Simply put, that's because of the calendar.

For months, military analysts in Washington have said the U.S., if it is to fight in Iraq, must go to war sometime between December and early March of next year in order to avoid the torrid heat of the Iraqi spring and summer. Analysts say such weather would wreak havoc on U.S. troops, who will need to wear special suits protecting against chemical and biological weapons.

The U.S. draft resolution, on its own, would delay the inspection process well through the winter. According to the text, Iraq has 30 days to declare all its weapons of mass destruction program, and inspectors can wait up to 45 days to start work. Moreover, inspectors can take up to two months to report to the Security Council, although they can notify it at any time of noncompliance.

And of course -- despite calls by U.S. officials to hurry up and approve it -- the current proposal is still being opposed by France and Russia, leaving open the possibility of even further delays.

Jason Mark is an antiwar advocate with Global Exchange, a San Francisco-based human rights organization that is staging protests against the war in Washington and California later this month. Mark says he's confident that the diplomatic impasse at the UN is working in favor of groups like his: "It looks like the current UN proposal would push everything off 145 days. So you're talking there about 4 1/2 months, and that gives us, again, a lot more time to stop this. I think, really, time is on our side."

But Anthony Cordesman, a former senior official at the departments of Defense and State, disagrees. One of America's foremost military analysts, Cordesman tells RFE/RL that he disagrees with the opinions of most military analysts on the necessity of waging war in Iraq this winter: "The idea that one week, or one month, or any two- or three-month period is absolutely critical to the campaign may have made sense in the past, but it really doesn't determine American behavior in any rigid sense today."

Cordesman continues: "The realities are that the United States can use air power at virtually any time. It certainly doesn't want war in the summer, but American armor is air-conditioned. We have air mobility. We can fight at night. The Iraqis can't do any of those things, so there's always a trade-off, at any time of year, a trade-off the United States can exploit by varying the technology and tactics it uses."

So what will the U.S. do? Cordesman says he sees three possible scenarios on Iraq -- and they all lead to war.

The first is that no meaningful UN resolution is passed and there is a sense of paralysis at the world body. In that case, Cordesman says Washington may well choose to take military action against Iraq on its own or in a coalition of like-minded countries.

The second possibility is that the U.S. manages to pass an acceptable resolution. "If that happens, according to most of the deadlines, it really does not avert war unless Iraq not only immediately complies, but continues to comply. And if there is any major barrier or block to that compliance, it would serve as a de facto declaration of war."

The third possibility is that the UN passes the resolution and Iraq does not comply. In that case, regardless of what the UN does afterward, Cordesman says the U.S. will argue that under UN Resolution 678 of 1991, Washington has a right to take action to enforce all previous UN resolutions on Iraq.

Cordesman says in the end, despite the UN wrangling and Bush's apparent new approach, not much has changed from in the view of the White House -- or the Pentagon: "So certainly this has changed the climate. It has made a disarmament -- rather than regime-change approach -- possible. But it is far from clear that it has really delayed a war."

He adds that the first thing to understand about U.S. diplomacy in recent weeks is that while Bush has sought to work with the UN to disarm Iraq, the Pentagon has all along been stepping up preparations for conflict in the Persian Gulf.