Is war now inevitable?

Powell's detailed presentation hints at a quick move to military means.

Whatever it revealed about Iraq, Secretary of State Colin Powell's presentation to the UN Security Council on Wednesday said something equally as important about the Bush administration: It is completely committed to war.

The major question still open, to the White House, is who will stand with the US when the time comes for action against Saddam Hussein. Mr. Powell's implicit message to the other diplomats in the Council chambers was that the train is ready to leave the station and it's time to get on board. Thus the US looks unfavorably on calls for a redoubled weapons inspections effort. The course of diplomacy with Iraq likely has only weeks to run.

"The US will act with the allies it has," says Robert Pfaltzgraff, a security expert at Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Medford, Mass. "There is no way you could make that kind of compelling case with that detailed information ... without the intention of moving very soon to military intervention."

That the administration has long been serious about combat in Iraq is of course obvious from its actions. It has already spent tens of millions of dollars to assemble a formidable striking force in the Gulf region.

Furthermore, there is still a chance that such action won't be necessary. Mr. Hussein might flee for a posh exile in some distant part of the world. He could be deposed, or perhaps undergo the complete transformation that US policy would require of him, and offer up all evidence of his secret weapons programs for inspectors to see.

But pigs haven't been spotted flying in either Baghdad or Washington, and at this point a clash of arms seems the most probably outcome of the current crisis. Secretary Powell has long been thought to be the senior administration official most opposed to war, and to see him flip through the evidence of Iraq's malfeasance in his typically forceful manner was to see all hope of a softer administration policy start to fade away.

"There is no doubt they are prepared to go to war," says John Reppert, a retired Army brigadier general and expert on strategy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.

IT'S unlikely that the administration expected its opponents in the Security Council to just throw up their arms and admit the error of their ways in the wake of Powell's presentation. Nor did that happen - the initial reaction of France, Germany, and other proponents of continued diplomacy was that Powell's speech showed the need to redouble the inspections effort, not abandon it entirely.

But from the US point of view, Powell showed that inspections don't work. The Bush administration and much of Europe seem to have different frameworks through which they view the inspections effort. To France, Germany, and other administration critics, they are detectives who now need more resources. The US believes such an active effort is doomed to failure, and that the inspectors should more properly be recipients of information the Iraqi government has decided to provide the world.

When asked about the French proposal to double or even triple the number of inspectors in Iraq and perhaps even set up a permanent monitoring team as an alternative to war, one US official at the UN rolls his eyes and smiles.

"The president said this can go on for weeks but not months - the Council has to deal with this issue," he says.

The true impact of Powell's presentation may take some time to surface. Immediate reactions by diplomats in the Security Council had all been prepared before Powell's remarks, points out Anthony Cordesman, an expert on military strategy and the Gulf region at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"The best way of looking at this is that [Powell] made the opening statement for the prosecution but the trial is going to play out over two to three weeks in the UN," says Mr. Cordesman.

A British diplomat at the UN predicted yesterday that a second resolution spelling out the authorization for the use of force in Iraq will almost certainly be taken up after the next weapons inspector's report, due Feb. 14.

Agreeing with the US position that a second resolution is not legally necessary for military action, the diplomat said that politically, however, it is "very important."

France may eventually sign on for war, in the White House view, but German acquiescence remains less probable.

"The Germans have a very tough domestic political circumstance, so they may sit this one out," says Rick Barton, a senior advisor at the Center for Security and International Studies in Washington.

But if nothing else, Powell's presentation appears to have had an effect in the US Congress. Even some past critics of the administration's Iraq policies now say that it is up to Hussein to prove why war is not necessary.

Some in Congress continue to urge the White House to pursue inspections options. Sen. Carl Levin (D) of Michigan says that the most important step the world could now take would be to insist on flying U-2 spy planes over Iraq, for instance.

Even those committed to working within the UN context have begun speaking about the inevitability of war, however. All lawmakers on Capitol Hill appear to recognize the imminence of action. The US is now in "round 14 of a 15 round title fight," says Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona.

As to the timing of a possible US move on Iraq, Mr. McCain says "there is no full moon at the beginning of March" in Iraq, and combat likely would occur then.

Staff writers Gail Russell Chaddock and Liz Marlantes contributed to this report.

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