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The Message from the Bush Camp: 'It's War Within Weeks'

by Guardian, UK Saturday, Jan. 25, 2003 at 12:42 PM

· Washington now concentrating on timing · State of union address to 'turn up the heat' · Blair faces nightmare scenario over war decision

The Message from the Bush Camp: 'It's War Within Weeks'

by Julian Borger in Washington, Ewen MacAskill and Simon Tisdall

President George Bush is determined to go to war with Saddam Hussein in the next few weeks, without UN backing if necessary, according to authoritative sources in Washington and London.

The US president is "to turn up the heat" in his state of the union address on Tuesday.

"The pressure comes from President Bush and it is felt all the way down," a European official said. "They're talking about weeks, not months. Months is a banned word now."

Mr Bush wanted the US secretary of state, Colin Powell, to force the issue of military action by presenting evidence of Saddam Hussein's violations of UN resolutions immediately after weapons inspectors give their report to the UN on Monday. In Washington circles such an event is being referred to as the Adlai Stevenson moment.

The "Adlai Stevenson moment" has become Washington shorthand for the US presentation of its intelligence case. Stevenson was the US ambassador to the UN at the time of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, who dramatically confronted the Soviet envoy with vivid aerial photographs of nuclear missiles being unloaded in Cuba.

Downing Street was alarmed by the Bush administration's sudden haste in moving towards a climax. It was adamant that the decision to go to war should not be declared before Tony Blair flies to Camp David for talks with Mr Bush next Friday.

An informed source in Washington said: "Blair is a good guy. They won't want to do that to him. They want it to look like he played a part in the policy-making but the decision has been made."

A key moment will now be the state of the union address. According to a Washington source, the US administration remains divided along old fault lines about the precise timescale of war. The US secretary of state, Donald Rumsfeld, wants Mr Bush to set a clear and imminent deadline. But Mr Powell, is resisting, asking for a little more time for diplomatic coalition-building.

But both sides of the divide are making it increasingly clear that the end result will be military action, with or without UN backing.

The chief White House spokesman, Ari Fleischer, yesterday brushed off mounting anti-war feeling across Europe, led by France. It was "entirely possible that France won't be on the line", he said, adding that Britain, Australia, Italy, Spain and "virtually all of the eastern European countries" would provide support.

Mr Powell echoed this, saying: "I don't think we will have to worry about going it alone."

The impatience within the White House for action against Iraq came on a day in which the cracks in the international coalition against Iraq widened. China and Russia joined France and Germany in warning the US against precipitate action and calling for Washington to work within the UN.

The German foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, revealed the extent of European anger over the US position when he told Washington to "cool down". The Russian foreign minister, Igor Ivanov, said: "Russia deems that there is no evidence that would justify a war in Iraq."

Mr Blair now finds himself perilously close to his nightmare scenario - sandwiched between a US administration bent on war and the rest of Europe either openly hostile to military action or passively resistant.

Britain believes it has won a short reprieve before the US presents its own intelligence evidence against Saddam Hussein, in effect a declaration of war, but only for a fortnight at most.

Mr Bush will lay out the broad case for toppling President Saddam next Tuesday but White House officials insist the speech, a year after the president coined the phrase, "axis of evil", will stop short of being a declaration of war. That will await a more detailed presentation of intelligence evidence in the next few weeks, after Mr Blair visits Camp David.

"We said that has to be a substantive consultation, not a fait accompli," one British official said. The British argument is that the longer the US waits before showing its hand, the better the case it will have to put before the UN security council, as the inspectors come across more Iraqi infringements.

The Foreign Office had initially sought to defuse the rising tension around next Monday's inspectors' report by denying that it represented a "moment of truth", but in recent days a source conceded: "That was never going to be realistic. Of course it's important."

At his meeting with Mr Powell yesterday, the foreign secretary, Jack Straw, clung to the official line. "There are still ways that this can be resolved peacefully," he said. Mr Straw repeated that the British preference is for a second UN resolution before any further action against Iraq but Mr Powell, in a change of tack, refused to commit himself to seeking a second resolution.

One of the factors behind Washington's haste appears to be the annual rise in temperatures in the Iraqi desert over the next few months. In theory, US and some allied troops have the capacity to fight in any weather but the effectiveness of both soldiers and equipment diminishes rapidly when the temperature rises over 35C.

"The planes have been designed for the cold war. They start losing lift, carry lighter loads, and must make shorter runs when the temperature goes over 35," said one government official involved in Anglo-American debates over the timing of an attack.

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