The Bush administration is stepping up its deployments to the Gulf, despite growing signs of domestic divisions. New Pentagon orders mean that 150,000 troops will be in place for possible military action against Saddam Hussein by the second half of February.
Since Friday, Donald Rumsfeld, the Defence Secretary, has authorised the deployment of 62,000 more personnel to the region. The latest forces to be sent include thousands more Marines, an airborne Army infantry brigade, as well as Stealth fighters and radar-jamming aircraft. Within five weeks, a senior military spokesman told The New York Times, "we'll be in the best position to provide flexible options for the President".
Disclosure of the new war preparations has been clearly timed to counter reports that, amid mounting unease among US allies and the failure of United Nations weapons inspectors to unearth damning evidence against President Saddam, the prospect of early military action is receding.
This implies that the full progress report to be presented to the Security Council on 27 January by the chief inspector, Hans Blix – as mandated by November's Security Council resolution 1441 – will not be a trigger for action.
Instead, senior US officials were quoted yesterday as saying that 27 January would be "a very important day" that would set in motion the end-game in the Iraq crisis.
Washington, moreover, is starting to make intelligence reports available to the inspectors to aid them in their search for proscribed chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programmes. The US is also increasing pressure on Baghdad to allow its weapons scientists to be questioned outside Iraq, while the Pentagon has initiated an e-mail campaign urging top Iraqi civilian and military officials to abandon President Saddam.
Mr Bush continues to insist that no final decision has been taken on war. But the relentless US military build-up, analysts say, is creating its own momentum. "Add everything up, and it looks like a countdown to war," one official said.
Simultaneously, a leading article yesterday in The Washington Post – a strong supporter of the hawks in the Bush administration – poured scorn on "the Iraqi charade". Any postponement, it warned, "would risk dispatching 1441 to the same dustbin where lie the Council's previous 16 resolutions on Iraq".
But opposition to early action against Baghdad is clearly on the increase both in the country and on Capitol Hill – not least because of the contrast with the administration's restrained approach to North Korea, which admits a secret nuclear programme and has expelled UN inspectors. In the case of Iraq, "the process of inspections is beginning and could take many months," Carl Levin, the respected Democrat who formerly headed the Senate Intelligence Committee, said yesterday.
"The fact we are making intelligence available to the inspectors shows we believe the inspections to be relevant. If they are relevant they should be completed. We should not be putting ourselves into a position where we have no alternative but to attack."
Polls show that two Americans in three believe that Mr Bush has not yet made the case for an attack on Iraq. On Saturday, some 5,000 to 7,000 protesters marched through downtown Los Angeles against any war. Much larger protests are likely this coming weekend in Washington and San Francisco.