The window on war with Iraq is suddenly narrowing as diplomatic options fade and the United States settles its full force of troops into place.
The decision by France, Russia, and Germany Wednesday to oppose any UN resolution that would authorize the use of force has sharply diminished the political solutions that remain in the standoff over Iraq.
As a result, experts - to the extent there are experts on such issues - now think a war could begin in a matter of days, probably no longer than two weeks. "US military action in Iraq is imminent...," says Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute, a public-policy think tank in Arlington, Va.
Some analysts, such as John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org in Alexandria, Va., predicts the war will begin "after March 7 but possibly before March 14."
Others put the start date a week or two later. And following one of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's favorite dictums - "Those who know don't tell, and those who tell don't know" - officials are not about to announce when the bombs fall and the tanks roll. Yet few diplomatic options remain, and many believe the main protagonists at the United Nations aren't going to change their minds at this point.
"We will not allow a resolution to pass that authorizes resorting to force," French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin said at a Paris press conference together with his Russian and German counterparts.
Asked whether France would use its veto in the council as Russia has suggested it might do, de Villepin said, "We will take all our responsibilities. We are in total agreement with the Russians."
Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said this week that Russia could use its UN Security Council veto to block any new resolution authorizing war in Iraq. UN representatives are waiting to hear what chief weapons inspector Hans Blix says in New York tomorrow, but the diplomatic window may already be closed - at least as far as the US in concerned.
At this point, US forces are nearly all in place. Some 230,000 troops are in Kuwait and other nearby countries, with another 60,000 en route. Five aircraft carrier battle groups are onscene and a sixth is on the way. Heavy bombers have moved from the US to such closer launch points as Diego Garcia - including the B-2 stealth bomber.
"We're ready if the president calls upon us," Air Force General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters Tuesday.
ASSUMING US-led forces are not able to enter Iraq from Turkey, the Pentagon is finalizing its Plan B: airlifting light-infantry troops by helicopter, securing airfields to be used for bringing in more troops and heavier equipment, and using relatively more airpower to attack Iraqi positions.
"A northern front is needed mainly to stabilize the political situation there [including Kurds and Iran-backed militias that recently entered Iraq], seize oilfields, and divide Iraqi forces," says Mr. Thompson. "The planes will land at airstrips that have already been identified and that will be secured early on by Special Operations troops. Airborne firepower will be augmented to compensate for the loss of armor on the ground."
Military officers and civilian experts point out that this shift to a more flexible approach to war - especially its emphasis on mobility and the kind of attacks from the air that are much more precise than the 1991 Gulf War - accelerates the kind of "transformation" that Pentagon reformers have been urging for years.
The middle of a war "is absolutely the best time to do this," says General Myers. "It provides an impetus that wouldn't have been there otherwise."
The nation's top military officer pointedly warned reporters about the dangers of remaining in Baghdad once the fighting begins. Even though its bombs are much more accurate than 12 years ago (most will be guided by satellites), coalition forces are expected to launch as many cruise missiles and bombs in the first night of the war as it did in the 38-day air war that preceded the ground battle.
Also, intelligence reports indicate that Saddam Hussein is clustering many of his forces in and around Baghdad - which could make for the kind of urban fighting that the press, humanitarian workers, and other civilians were not exposed to in the last war. "I'd be very, very careful," Myers said.
While the UN continues to act as if war can be avoided, some officials there reportedly have been working on a secret plan for governing Iraq after the war.
"The United Nations has drawn up a confidential plan to establish a post-Saddam government in Iraq in a move that suggests its leaders now consider war all but inevitable," the Times (London) reported yesterday.
In an indication of war timing, White House officials remind reporters that Mr. Bush has said, "This issue will come to a head in a matter of weeks, not months." That was back in January, and White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said this week "nothing has changed that timetable."