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[casi] Rogers: War by Timetable

           War by timetable
            by Paul Rogers (Professor of Peace Studies at the University of
            19 - 2 - 2003

            The popular protests against US war on Iraq are massive and
growing. The US faces acute diplomatic problems over weapons inspection, in
Nato, and with Turkey. But the White House hawks and the US military are
charting the full moon over Baghdad. There will be war in five weeks.

            The huge anti-war marches and events around the world on the
weekend of 15-16 February 2003 may be the most significant political
demonstrations since the Cold War era. In their scale, they resemble the
1986 and 2001 'people power' movements in the Philippines which removed
Presidents Marcos and Estrada, and the mass outpouring of popular feeling
across the Soviet bloc in 1989.

            If the size of the demonstrations greatly exceeded the
expectations of the organisers, their timing was also important. They
closely followed the report from Hans Blix, the chief UN weapons inspector
in Iraq, to the UN Security Council that was clearly far too soft for the
Bush administration. One evident implication of Blix's tone and content was
that inspections should continue. Indeed, a significant part of his speech
was devoted to detailing the impressive inspection process that has been
built up in only eleven weeks, as well as the substantial expansion in
Unmovic's activities that is currently under way.

            This combination of popular discontent, Security Council
discussion, and the concurrent splits in Nato have combined to refocus
intense attention on the political process, leading to a central assumption
that the risk of war is primarily dependent on what happens at the United

            This may be missing a key element. While so much emphasis is on
the UN and attitudes in western capitals, what is actually happening on the
ground may be the real determining factor of what happens next. In this
respect, the pivotal reality at present is that the Pentagon is simply not
yet ready for war against Iraq.

            Planning for the full moon

            By 14 February, there were about 106,000 US forces in the
Central Command area that covers the Gulf, with perhaps 10,000 more in
Turkey (see Global Security for most recent information). The Gulf forces
are made up of 26,000 army troops, 20,000 in US air force units and 60,000
in the navy and marine corps. The army and marine troops together comprise
no more than 50,000, about one third of the ground forces that need to be in
place before a war starts.

            Most of the equipment is already there, and at least 1,000
troops a day are now being flown into the region. Even so, the key
additional component is the highly mobile 101st Airborne Division from Fort
Campbell in Tennessee, regarded as essential for a rapid war that will see
the near-simultaneous use of a massive air bombardment and rapid ground
force invasions from both the south and north of Iraq.

            The 101st Airborne will not be in place for another four weeks.
In the last few days, huge quantities of the division's equipment have been
loaded onboard two Military Sealift Command ships, the USNS Dahl and the
USNS Bob Hope at Blount Island near Jacksonville in Florida (see The
Tennessean newspaper). The supplies include nearly 300 helicopters and 3,800
trucks, together with spare parts, food and medical supplies.

            Both ships were due to sail earlier this week, and they will
take up to twenty-one days to make the transit to the Gulf. Once there, the
process will begin of unloading equipment, matching it to the troops who
will have been flown in and preparing the forces for highly mobile 'deep
strike' attacks into Iraq. This is likely to be completed by about 15 March,
by which time most of the other US forces, including further aircraft
carrier battle groups, will have been assembled.

            Contrary to conventional wisdom, the latter part of March is
considered by the military to be an appropriate time for an invasion, as the
cloudy winter weather will have largely been replaced by clear days. Another
preference is for moonless nights, enabling more effective use of
night-vision equipment where the US forces have a huge advantage. With a
full moon due on 18 March, this would make 25 March the most likely starting
date of the war - quite a lot later than most analysts have been predicting.

            Sand in the machine of war

            There are other possible factors to be taken into account. The
current US and UK air operations over the no-fly zones could be ratcheted up
substantially, but this could well lead to some kind of pre-emption by some
Iraqi forces. Such an action, and reaction, cannot be ruled out. If the
Saddam Hussein regime eventually decides that a US attack is inevitable, and
that action through the UN is irrelevant, then it could well decide to start
the war before all the US forces are ready.

            A further complication is the current lack of agreement between
the US and Turkey. While this may be quickly resolved, this could also mean
that it will be late March before the required US military forces can be
assembled there.

            What does all this mean for the political process? There are
three aspects to this. First, there is time for anti-war movements to
develop further across Europe and possibly even in the United States. They
have been remarkable in their recent speed of development and have come
together before a war has even started. At the very least they will put
further pressure on governments, with Britain and Spain being particularly
significant. In both countries a palpable unease about the 'march to war' is
now being reflected in opinion polls showing a loss of support for the
governing parties.

            Second, the Bush administration could give the impression of
reluctantly allowing more time for the political process at the United
Nations, knowing full well that it will not even be ready to go to war for
several weeks. Then, by mid-March, it can express its utter dismay at the
lack of progress and declare that there is no alternative to war, having
gone the last step for peace.

            But it is the third aspect that is crucial - the pace and
development of the UN inspection process in Iraq. As Hans Blix has
indicated, this is already intensive and is still in the process of speeding
up, as U-2 spy-plane flights start, the helicopter fleet becomes fully
operational, pilot-less drones are brought in and French and Russian
reconnaissance aircraft join the group.

            It is always possible that the Unmovic inspectors will actually
find the much-vaunted 'smoking gun' revealing the existence of Iraqi
biological or chemical weapons, but if they do not, then the very intensity
of their operations means that it would become more difficult for the United
States to take the war route.

            Moreover, the Saddam Hussein regime still has much to gain by
offering a degree of cooperation. Its ideal position in late March would be
widespread international opposition to the war coupled with a vigorous
inspection process, the two making for a delay in the start of US military
operations stretching right through April.

            Five weeks away

            What, then, is the likelihood of war? To get as accurate an
answer as possible to this, military planning is the vital consideration.
All the indications are that the military build-up has been going on
regardless of the political process and that there is a real sense of
frustration among Bush's security team over the involvement of the UN. The
bottom line is that everything will be in place by mid-March or very soon
after; war is planned to begin around five weeks from now.

            Alliance disunity, popular anti-war movements and problems at
the United Nations are all annoying complications, but to the security hawks
they are not particularly relevant. The war is going to happen. Given the
absolute determination of people such as Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and
others, it is going to be very difficult to stop it.

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