Exit Ramps Before War

War with Iraq appears one big step closer now that Washington has declared Baghdad in "material breach" of UN resolutions, a term some diplomats consider a trigger for war.

Add to that Pentagon preparations to deploy 50,000 troops to the region in January, US war games in the area, as well as continued Iraqi posturing, and it's not unreasonable to imagine an attack beginning in February.

But it's important to keep in mind that war is not altogether inevitable, not yet anyway.

Possible scenarios for avoiding war include a coup in Iraq, an 11th hour realization on the part of Saddam Hussein that he should cooperate with disarming, or even a peaceful transfer of power in exchange for exile.

Despots don't usually give up easily, of course, and when they do, it's not until the very last minute, usually after all other possibilities have been exhausted. But in the realm of brinkmanship, there's still time to force Iraqi compliance. Think of Haiti's "Baby Doc" Duvalier, who was forced into exile after driving his country to financial ruin. Thousands of people were allegedly killed and tortured under his and his father's rule.

True, Mr. Hussein had an opportunity to give up before an attack in the first Gulf War. He passed it up, even after a last-ditch effort by a Russian envoy to resolve the situation diplomatically.

But he blinked once already in this round. That was when - under pressure of the United Nations Security Council and not just the US - he allowed weapons inspectors to return.

The Bush administration has another serious opportunity to turn up the heat in the next phase of inspector work. Chief inspector Hans Blix has been asking the administration to share its evidence of Iraq's weapons development. The administration hesitated, because it did not want to compromise its intelligence, nor deprive itself of targets once a war started. But it should be possible to share at least some select evidence, and now the administration is set to do just that, along with help in interviewing Iraqi scientists.

The evidence issue is key, because once specifics are brought to light, America's allies would have a much easier time backing a military solution spearheaded by the US. With that piling on, Hussein might be forced to blink again, perhaps this time in a more meaningful way than last fall.

And it turns out, the American public cares about more evidence, too. A recent Los Angeles Times poll showed that 70 percent of Americans believe the president has not provided enough proof to justify a war.

For weeks, the administration has said Iraq's Dec. 8 weapons report was its "last chance." But that chance has come and gone. The White House has wisely let it pass in favor of a few more opportunities to tighten the screws.

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