It is likely to begin as it did in 1991, with the roar of cruise missiles.
Streaking from American cruisers, destroyers, and submarines, swarms of the earth-hugging projectiles, at a cost of $1.4 million each, will rip across the placid waters of the Persian Gulf at the radars, missiles, guns, and command posts of Iraq's air defenses.
About the same time, United States planes carrying bombs, antiradar rockets, and electronic jamming gear may join the assault on Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's only defensive system.
But once the biggest Iraqi threat to US and British aircraft is smashed, what next? And what will be the cost in civilian casualties if Saddam employs "human shield" tactics? These are among the key questions being provoked by the growing likelihood that President Clinton will order Iraq attacked in coming days for continuing to obstruct the United Nations' hunt for Baghdad's biological- and chemical-warfare programs.
Few experts advocate anything short of a massive campaign of missile and air attacks against Iraq's suspected weapons sites and the institutions that support Saddam's repressive rule. But there is disagreement on what the final aim should be.
Some experts assert that the US will only have enough time and firepower to force the Iraqi leader into retracting his threat to halt cooperation with the monitors of the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM). This appears to be the strategy favored by the Clinton administration. "If one has to resort to military options, we should not overestimate what they will in fact achieve," Defense Secretary William Cohen said over the weekend.
To try to achieve more than compelling Saddam's compliance with UNSCOM would strain the 26,000-strong American air, sea, and land force in the Gulf, would weaken allied support, and fuel international opprobrium as civilian casualties mounted, some experts assert. Many point out that Gulf War bombings were unable to hit Saddam or even loosen his grip.
How far should action go?
The US should "stop with the strikes when Iraq makes clear that it will operate with UNSCOM," says Anthony Cordesman, a defense expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington research institute. "To go any further ... is to depend on sheer luck."
But others insist the US must go further, and that any operation be intense enough to destroy the "infrastructure" that sustains Saddam's regime, thereby encouraging his overthrow by opponents in the military.
That means hitting the facilities of his numerous intelligence services, the elite Republican Guard, and Iraq's communications networks. If Pentagon planners know his location, they should also target Saddam himself, these experts say.
"We have to be willing to do something for a week or 10 days as our initial point of departure," says Michael Eisenstadt, a military analyst at the Institute for Near East Policy in Washington. "What you have to do is not even let Saddam come up for air. Nothing would be worse than to hit him [but] allow him to brush the dust off and then thumb his nose at us again."
"My yardstick for a serious strike against Iraq is something that seriously weakens Saddam's hold on power," agrees Graham Fuller, a former senior CIA official who is an analyst at the RAND Corp., a California-based think tank. "It must hurt the Republican Guard and security services and communications networks very hard and in a way that facilitates a coup. But that's a pretty tall order."
US officials decline to reveal specifics about their plans. They continue to express a hope that 11th-hour diplomacy by Russia, France, Turkey, and others will persuade Saddam to end the three-month crisis by giving UNSCOM inspectors full access to his palaces and other sites from which they have been barred.
But at the same time, US officials are leaving no doubt that any military action will far exceed the "pin pricks" of the limited missile attacks the US launched after the Iraqi Army moved against minority Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq in September 1996.
"I think there should be no doubt about the strength of the US force. All anybody has to do is to look at what is out there," says Ms. Albright of the 30 American ships, including two aircraft carriers, with another steaming in, and more than 300 planes in the Gulf. A British carrier is also there.
Officials have hinted at some of the targets that would be hit.
"There are a range of targets that are important to Saddam and that he may use to support his regime: special Republican Guard units that provide security forces, intelligence, command and control," says Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon.
Also to be targeted would be facilities capable of producing chemical and biological agents and the warheads and missiles capable of delivering them, American officials say.
The raids could be staged by F-15s and F-16s or by radar-evading F-117 fighters carrying bombs guided by lasers or signals from global positioning satellites. The US has also deployed in the region eight B-52s and two B-1 bombers that can drop a new bomb designed to penetrate deeply buried "hardened" bunkers.
But any American military operation faces a range of uncertainties. For one thing, some experts question the accuracy and lethality of Tomahawk cruise missiles. Should they prove inadequate, greater use will have to be made of aircraft, heightening the risks to US pilots.
Furthermore, the US does not know where all of Iraq's suspected illicit arms-production and storage units are. Some are believed to be among the more than 70 facilities, including factories, universities, and medical laboratories, that have legitimate civilian uses.
Officials and independent experts also say that some equipment and chemical and germ agents are probably kept on vehicles that regularly move between hiding places.
Concerns have been raised about the possibility that US bombing could release some of the chemical or germ agents Iraq is suspected of hiding. But officials and experts say such agents must be dispersed under specific conditions to be effective. Even so, they do not rule out the possibility of casualties as a result of any such releases.