The hammer of US military force is almost ready for use against Iraq, even as the diplomatic struggle between Washington and Baghdad continues.
There are now some 80,000 uniformed American personnel in the region, counting troops deployed in Afghanistan. While an actual attack would likely require a final sprint deployment of strike units, most of the elements for war are now in place, as symbolized by this week's command-and-control exercise in Qatar.
Thus at a crucial moment in the standoff, with Iraq defying the US to prove it retains weapons of mass destruction, President Bush's ability to strike against his foe has likely moved from the theoretical to the actual.
"Military power is [now] a backdrop giving teeth to the diplomats, inspectors, and CIA," says Barry McCaffrey, the retired four-star general who led the left-hook attack across the Euphrates River valley during the 1991 Gulf War, trapping Iraq's elite Republican Guard.
General McCaffrey and other experts say that a war on Iraq will be prosecuted much more swiftly than the 1991 war, which at the time was one of the swiftest in modern combat.
For one thing, the US has prepositioned heavy weapons and other supplies in the region. In 1991, there was nothing in place - not a single round, armored vehicle, or meal.
Second, the US military is much more technologically advanced than it was in 1991. For example, 10 percent of the bombs dropped in the 1991 war were precision munitions. This time, 80 percent of the bombs dropped will be precision-guided munitions - that is, munitions guided either by laser beam or satellite.
Third, the Iraqi military is operating at about half the capacity it was in 1991. "The Iraqi Army in particular has terrible maintenance and logistics problems, dismal morale," McCaffrey says.
That said, he goes on to say that any fighting wouldn't be simply a walk in the park. The six divisions of the Republican Guard, which have three tank divisions around Baghdad, are well equipped. In addition, there are another 15,000 troops in the Special Republican Guard, the troops that move Saddam Hussein around and guard sensitive sites, and four intelligence services that are all heavily armed.
This last group, which is the closest to Mr. Hussein, has a very good reason to fight, McCaffrey says. If they aren't killed in battle with the US, their own people - who despise them for being part of Hussein's despotic regime - will likely turn on them.
Still, he says, "There is no doubt in my mind that we will destroy the Iraqi armed forces, take down the regime, and occupy Iraq" within 21 days.
Over the past two months, in preparation for an eventual war, the US has been quietly moving forces and material into the region, resulting in the 80,000 troop estimate. The Pentagon doesn't release official figures, but it lists approximate numbers. In addition, several websites track military affairs.
According to those, there are approximately:
• 12,000 Army troops in Kuwait, which are protected by two Patriot missile batteries;
• 3,300 Army troops at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, including an armored brigade. Some 1,000 additional forces arrived over the weekend for the test of Internal Look, the newly deployed portable command-and-control center;
• 500 Air Force troops and the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing at Al Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates;
• 800 Marines in Djibouti, plus a CIA control center for the Predator drones;
• 3,800 Air Force troops and 60 aircraft at Incirlik Air Base in eastern Turkey;
• 2,000 Air Force troops and 224 aircraft at Al Seeb Air Base in Oman;
• 4,200 mainly naval troops at the 5th Fleet headquarters in Bahrain;
• The 50th Expeditionary Wing and two naval squadrons on Diego Garcia, an island in the Indian Ocean. It is also now able to accommodate as many as six B-2 stealth bombers;
• 10,000 mainly Air Force troops at Prince Sultain Air Base in Saudi Arabia, which is protected by two Patriot missile batteries;
• The USS Abraham Lincoln carrier battle group, which includes nine ships with 5,963 personnel and 70 aircraft, is deployed in the Persian Gulf region; the USS Washington carrier battle group, which includes 13 ships with 6,250 personnel and about 75 aircraft, is deployed in the Mediterranean; the aircraft carrier USS Constellation, with 50 warplanes, is on its way to the region; and the USS Harry S. Truman, which includes 10 ships and 8,000 personnel, as well as 80 aircraft including EA-6B electronic warfare jets, left Norfolk, Va., at the end of last week and is steaming toward the region.
With the numbers of troops already on the ground, it won't take much to fly in thousands more - maybe as many as 100,000, McCaffrey says. "You just need to marry up soldiers with the equipment."
Others, though, think it may take a bit longer.
Although he thinks the US call-up of some 10,000 reserves at the end of last week is a good indicator, "There would have to be a much larger call-up of reserves than we have seen to support any action," says Michael Corgan, a former naval commander who is now an international relations professor at Boston University.
Moreover, he says, there would need to be more civil-action teams in place. If a war with Iraq does indeed turn out to be quick and Iraq collapses, he says, you'd need to have everything in place to make sure it doesn't fall apart.
One other possible hitch is the use of some key military bases in the region. Turkey, for instance, is balking at allowing US ground forces to stage on its territory for a possible move into northern Iraq.
Still, says Michael Eisenstadt, a military analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, there are "very few things that are showstoppers. If you have support from Kuwait and one or two other Gulf countries, it's simply a matter of how much risk you're willing to incur and how many inefficiencies you are willing to accept."
But one other likely hitch, on which McCaffrey and others agree, is Iraq's potential use of chemical or biological weapons. Many think that if Hussein is backed into a corner, his forces will use these weapons.