With four days to go before a key Iraqi deadline to account for any weapons programs, the Bush administration is ramping up its rhetoric against President Saddam Hussein.
But the path to possible war is not straight and unambiguous. Even as administration officials, including President Bush, renewed the case for war in speeches Monday, they continue to move in seemingly contradictory directions - saying the United States hasn't decided yet whether to go to war, while laying the groundwork for war.
The challenge for the White House's war cabinet, say former military strategists and Middle East experts, is to find that golden moment when all the pieces come together for a full-fledged war, if necessary, including agreement by a broad coalition of allies that war is the only option. A multitude of potential triggers for war lie ahead: Iraq could submit a weapons report in the next few days that is clearly false, or there could be a particularly egregious provocation in the Iraqi no-fly zone, or something could happen with the new weapons inspections.
"Obviously, there's a policy train wreck developing between the White House's necessary timeline, if there's going to be combat, and the timeline that's evolving with the UN inspections," says John Rothrock, former chief of intelligence planning for the Air Force.
In the most likely scenario, he says, the administration will have to seize upon some issue within the inspection process that will lead the White House to throw up its hands and conclude the inspections process is bankrupt.
"What that might be, I don't know, but they're going to have to seize upon something pretty quickly, at least within the next six weeks or so, if not sooner," Colonel Rothrock says, citing the importance of weather conditions in fighting a war in the Persian Gulf.
If the trigger for war looks flimsy, or if it appears the US is just going through the motions in trying to avoid war, Washington may have a hard time pulling together a broad coalition against Iraq.
But declaring regularly that war is not inevitable and that a decision for war has not been made, administration officials have made war planning more difficult, says Shibley Telhami, a Middle East expert at the University of Maryland.
"When a US envoy in Turkey is talking to Turks, or in Jordan talking to Jordanians, he can't quite be explicit about what the US needs from them, and can't be explicit about the exact nature of the planning that will be required after the war," Professor Telhami says. "That state of uncertainty, I think, is hindering the kind of cooperation that may be required."
At a certain point, analysts say, preparation equals war. US equipment is flowing into the Gulf; 60,000 US troops are in the region. If the president endorses the idea of moving in vastly larger numbers of troops in the 200,000-250,000 range, then momentum toward war becomes almost inexorable. Supporting that many troops in the region can't be sustained for long, and to pull them out without action would send a signal of weakness to President Hussein.
To some military analysts, the war has already started in a way, considering the amount of force that's moving into the region and the escalation of the air war between the US and Iraq in the no-fly zones.
"They're running [various] operations and now waiting for the trigger point at which they can open this up," says Larry Seaquist, a former Pentagon strategist. "There's nothing left but the tactical decisions," he continues, noting that there's still a 10 to 15 percent chance full war can be averted, if, for example, Hussein were to die or be overthrown in a coup.
Alliance-building is also proceeding apace this week.
Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz was in Ankara, Turkey, yesterday seeking agreement for the use of Turkish military bases in a second Gulf War.
Mr. Wolfowitz is also asking Turkey to pledge the use of its troops to police refugees or guard prisoners during a war.
Also yesterday, Wolfowitz, one of the administration's leading hawks, made remarks on BBC Radio about Iraq that were at once threatening and conciliatory.
While stating that war was not inevitable, he added that "our only hope of getting this problem resolved peacefully is to convince Saddam that it really is a brand-new ballgame and that if he doesn't cooperate in a way he has never cooperated before, it will mean the end of his regime."
On Monday, both President Bush and Vice President Cheney delivered speeches that defined Hussein's choices - disarm or be removed - in unequivocal language. Mr. Cheney went further by reviving speculation that there could be a link now or in the future between Iraq and Al Qaeda.
"That is why confronting the threat posed by Iraq is not a distraction from the war on terror," the vice president told a conference in Colorado of the Air National Guard leadership.