While war still rages, Saddam may be safe

Attack on Iraq
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The Independent Online

Not a day goes by in the US without a fearsome denunciation of Saddam Hussein. Not a soul doubts, and the American public overwhelmingly supports, President Bush's determination to topple the Iraqi leader. But this was the week that it became plain that military action to achieve that goal won't happen any time soon.

One reason is the campaign in Afghan- istan. US officials warn that Taliban and al-Qa'ida insurgents are regrouping for offensives in the spring – warnings that imply that Operation Anaconda may not have been quite the success the Pentagon proclaimed. Vice-Admiral Thomas Wilson, head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told Congress of a "very widespread probability of insurgency-style warfare" with the return of what is the war-fighting season in Afghanistan.

Although just 5,000 US troops are in the country, they are supported by several times that number outside it. Top US commanders warn they will soon be unable to fulfil their missions if US military operations in the Gulf continue at their current pace. And that is before the extra demands of any offensive against Iraq, which would require up to 200,000 US troops. The Afghan campaign has depleted stocks of precision-guided munitions needed for an air attack against Iraqi targets. For all these reasons, a frontal attack against Saddam may be many months, even a year or more, away.

A second red light has been Vice-President Dick Cheney's tour of the Middle East. The message he brought back was bleak: not one of the 10 countries he visited backed the idea.Washington is also concerned at the opposition within Britain. The criticism of the despatch of 1,700 Royal Marines to Afghanistan would pale beside that of participation in an operation against Iraq.

The US hasn't made up its mind. As Joseph Biden, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, says, there is "incredible division" in the heart of the adminis- tration about how to get rid of Saddam. And that is before anyone has come up with a convincing blueprint for a post-Saddam Iraq.