WASHINGTON–As U.S. troops and armor pour into the Persian Gulf, President Bush faces rising pressures on multiple fronts to slow down the momentum toward war.
Just a few weeks ago, Bush administration officials were suggesting that a U.S. invasion to oust Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein might begin soon after a pivotal report from United Nations’ weapons inspectors on Jan. 27.
Now, the target date appears to have slipped to late February or early March at the soonest, U.S. officials and analysts say.
In the latest sign of a possible delay, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld is said to be leaning against a plan to begin a war in Iraq with bombing before all necessary U.S. ground forces are assembled in the Persian Gulf region. Those forces are not expected to be in place before mid-February.
“The idea that you start with a relatively modest force and flow forces in behind it seems to have been rejected and replaced by the British model of the Falklands” War, when Britain sent a large military force to reclaim the Falkland Islands from Argentina, said a senior defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix insisted that he needed until at least March to assess Iraq’s willingness to disarm peacefully. “We have no such timeline on the work we do now,” Blix said, when asked about U.S. troop deployments. “I am operating on my own timeline.”
U.S. officials, eager to keep their options open, insist publicly that there never was a timetable for war.
Concerned by public opinion hostile to a war, U.S. allies, including close Bush friend Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain, are counseling patience.
Bush went out of his way Tuesday to dispute suggestions that the administration’s determination toward Saddam is weakening.
“I’m sick and tired of games and deception,” the president said. “I haven’t seen any evidence that he has disarmed. Time is running out on Saddam Hussein. He must disarm.”
Rumsfeld signed two major deployment orders over the weekend, to dispatch 62,000 more Marines, Army soldiers and Air Force personnel to the region.
With those deployments, the number of American forces in the region is expected to grow to about 150,000 air, ground and naval forces in the next several weeks. An additional 100,000 are expected in the region by mid- to late February to be ready for a full-scale air and ground assault on Iraq.
A national Knight Ridder poll found that only about a third of Americans support a war against Iraq without backing from the United Nations and U.S. allies.
To gain that backing, Bush may need rock-solid proof that Saddam is lying when he says Iraq has no nuclear, chemical or biological weapons programs. So far, no such “smoking gun” has been made public and, on the surface at least, Iraq has cooperated with weapons inspectors.
(Knight Ridder correspondents Jessica Guynn, Jonathan S. Landay, Joseph L. Galloway and Drew Brown contributed to this report.)