War with Iraq was one of the fixtures in the 2003 political almanac. All informed commentators who made predictions for the year ahead expected the US military to move in, probably as early as spring, and take out Saddam Hussein, with Tony Blair standing "shoulder to shoulder" with George Bush. But what was clear only 11 days ago is looking fuzzy now. The picture was first blurred by the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, who gave a strangely precise figure that there was a 60 per cent likelihood that war was off, 40 per cent that it would be on.
At first it seemed that Mr Straw might be breaking ranks, putting himself in a position analogous to his opposite number in Washington, Colin Powell, the leading "dove" in the Bush administration. Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary, dismissed the 60 per cent figure as "unhelpful" and Mr Blair pointedly refused to endorse it.
Then it seemed that the Prime Minister himself was going cold on the war. Downing Street made it known that Mr Blair does not see the report which UN weapons inspectors will produce on 27 January as any sort of "deadline". He anticipates that its findings will be inconclusive and that the UN team will go back to Iraq to keep looking. Although that raises serious doubts about the date on which war will begin, it is still far too early for anti-war protesters to throw away their placards. Contrary to reports, the Prime Minister has not asked for a postponement of military action until the autumn. The prospect of British troops landing in southern Iraq in the next few months is still very real.
Mr Blair is prepared to tolerate a bit of what might be called pacifist talk at the moment, because he thinks that Baghdad now knows that the West means business. Iraqi television is watched with great interest by people who advise the government, and they report a constant stream of bulletins showing US and British military preparations.
"The one thing that is definitely out on the Iraqi street is that they know that there is a serious military build-up," said one senior Downing Street adviser. "Sometimes the best way to avoid a military conflict is to make sure you are ready for it if it happens."
Although he refused to put a figure on the likelihood of war last week, Mr Blair did quote a percentage when he told MPs: "What is 100 per cent certain is that Saddam must be disarmed of weapons of mass destruction." That left open the theoretical possibility that Saddam Hussein could suddenly own up and allow the UN to destroy the weapons of mass destruction which Washington is convinced that he possesses, and manage somehow to convince George Bush that this time he is telling the truth.
That possibility has to be classed as remote. However, Mr Blair's seemingly insurmountable problem is that public opinion – let alone opinion within the Labour Party – is not ready for a war, particularly not for a war which lacks the specific authority of the United Nations. Significantly, he dodged a question from the Liberal Democrat leader, Charles Kennedy, about whether there were any circumstances under which Mr Bush might find himself fighting a war without British involvement.
Patsy Calton, the Liberal Democrat MP for Cheadle, caused a ripple of surprise in the Commons when she told the Prime Minister that "hundreds" of her constituents had been on to her expressing concern about the war. That sounded like an exaggeration, but Mrs Calton is emphatic that the number of people in the Cheadle constituency who have written letters or signed anti-war petitions is in three figures. The letters, seen by The Independent on Sunday, suggest that Saddam Hussein has no admirers in that corner of Britain, and yet people are suspicious of the US and British motives for going to war.
One letter writer, who was in Manhattan on 11 September 2001, wrote that the impending war "has nothing to with terrorism or weapons of mass destruction; it has everything to do with control of the oil supply". Another described it as "out of keeping with our national character in its finest sense, and all too reminiscent of the Vietnam War".
Public sentiments like these will have filtered through to Jack Straw, who habitually tries to keep an ear open for public opinion, and that may explain why he made known his assessment of the situation. With Ark Royal setting sail, and other military preparations under way, the Foreign Secretary feared people would conclude that the weapons inspection and diplomatic activity were a sham, because the decision to fight had already been made.
But Mr Blair is less worried by domestic opinion than Mr Straw because he is convinced that his own powers of persuasion can, once again, win over a doubting public. One of his closest advisers forecast with great confidence: "The public will support military action if they think it's the right thing to do and that we have exhausted the diplomatic route."
Washington, by Rupert Cornwell
President Bush clenches the rostrum at every public appearance, narrowing his eyes before he intones: either Saddam disarms, or the United States and its allies will do it for him. At the UN his envoy declares again that Iraq is in "material breach" of its obligations to the world body – the diplomatic trigger for military action.
And all the while America's armies mass around Iraq's borders. Already 50,000 are there; by the end of January they will be 100,000-strong, a deployment unprecedented since the last Gulf war in 1991.
Outwardly then, nothing in Washington has changed. Yet this weekend the mid-February war that before Christmas seemed inevitable, now looks a mite less so. There are three reasons. One is the failure of the UN inspectors to unearth anything incriminating. Not that anyone here expected them to, but the simple fact weakens the case for action.
Most Americans still support a war, but they believe that Bush has not made the case for one. Thus the administration has started to give the inspectors the intelligence to help prove its assertion that Saddam is hiding weapons of mass destruction. Even super-hawks will have a job selling a war with the argument that Iraq is not showing sufficient "proactive co-operation" with the UN.
Second, some allies are getting wobbly. Turkey signals it would not permit the stationing of US ground troops on its soil. The Saudi position is, as usual, fuzzy. Jordan remains adamantly opposed and even Britain may be getting cold feet.
No 10 may deny claims that Tony Blair is pressing his friend George to delay hostilities until the autumn. But "let the inspectors do their job" is precisely what a growing minority of Americans are saying. And without Britain, the last pretence of an international coalition would vanish.
Third, there is the matter of North Korea. A Washington truism is that no US administration can focus on two crises at once. So Colin Powell asks: "What crisis?" Bush vows to pursue a diplomatic solution. But North Korea's withdrawal on Friday from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty blew that pretence away, along with the fiction that a defanged Iraq represents a greater threat than North Korea pursuing not one, but two, clandestine nuclear weapons programmes.
This is the fraught backdrop for the toughest choice of Bush's presidency, which he must make within the next five or six weeks: to fight, or not to fight. Saddam could make some crass miscalculation that would render the argument superfluous. If not, it's up to the man in the White House.
Maybe Bush will simply declare victory, and move on. But his popularity has been largely built on his reputation as a straight-shooter who means what he says. "This president does not bluff," his spokesman Ari Fleischer has warned.
So what about the 100,000 troops, who cannot be kept on a war footing indefinitely? Either they will go into action within the next two months, or stand down. Then imagine the headlines: "Bush Blinks", or "Saddam calls Bush's bluff".
One Iraqi specialist encap- sulates the dilemma. "It's hard to imagine the circumstances that will trigger war, but it's as hard to imagine the circumstances to stop it." Jack Straw put the odds on war at 60:40 against. In Washington, it's the other way round.
Baghdad, by Kim Sengupta
The question in Iraq is not if there is going to be a war, but when. From Saddam Hussein's inner coterie to the street vendors in Baghdad, the consensus is that an attack by the United States is inevitable.
People who had told me in Baghdad and Mosul two weeks ago that war could not be avoided, remained of the same opinion when I spoke to them yesterday. Tales of the US military build-up coiling around Iraq, some fanciful, some accurate, are in wide circulation, and there are weekly reports of US and British warplanes flying near the Iraqi capital, past the no-fly zones.
The presence of the United Nations weapons inspectors will, at best, buy time, at least until 27 January when they make their first report. After that a squeezing of the campaigning season could mean it will be too late for Washington to start operations before the heat of the summer sets in, and any invasion plan will have to be put off until the autumn.
But in Iraq even this is seen as a somewhat forlorn hope. When the US and its allies have the forces in place, probably in February, an excuse will be manufactured and the bombing will begin.
There is a remarkable lack of rancour towards Britons and Americans. For just as Washington and London have attempted to personalise the impending conflict as being against Saddam Hussein, so in Baghdad the hostility is not so much against the United States and Britain as Bush and Blair.
Fawaz el-Badr, a 37-year-old maths teacher from Arasat, Baghdad, said yesterday that if anything the mood had become more pessimistic. "We see on television the [UN] inspectors going to two, three, four places every day and finding nothing. But then we see Bush and Blair saying we must be hiding things.
"So it is obvious they are not going to believe what the inspectors say. They will make up some lies and then attack us."
It is a very brave or foolish Iraqi who would talk openly about Saddam Hussein, and Khalid Abbas is neither. The 39-year-old mechanic does not want to discuss "regime change", but does fear the aftermath of war.
"There will be a lot of killings, a lot. This is a country where there are many feuds, and so many people have guns. The Americans will take care of the oil for themselves, but they are stupid if they think they can control this country. We can see, they cannot even control Afghanistan."
The mood of fatalism is particularly noticeable among the ruling elite. Tariq Aziz, the Deputy Prime Minister, is no longer talking of "great victories" over the US invaders. "We know they have a huge army, they have technology. We shall defend our country the best we can," he said.
A Ba'ath party apparatchik, who had declared during a previous visit to Iraq that the party would stay in power for ever, would only say: "My neighbours know I am a good man. They know I have never oppressed them..."
So the strange and surreal life in Baghdad continues. The movie channel at the Al-Rashid hotel shows Tom Berenger playing a CIA agent hunting terrorists who have acquired chemical weapons; Manchester United play on Sport TV screens in city centre cafés; and Britney Spears videos are shown at the fashionable Black and White restaurant. And the people watching this wait for US and British bombing to begin.
"We are trying to enjoy the last days of peace," said Khalid Abbas's wife Rahima. "But I am frightened all the time about what is going to happen."And if not war, then what?
Ordinary Iraqis may feel some relief if the prospect of war recedes, but the sanctions and the suffering generated by poverty, malnutrition and an oppressive regime will remain. The Kurds will still be in limbo and all those who had hoped for rescue from Saddam Hussein's regime will sink to a new level of cynicism and despair.
Indefinite postponement of a war will be a vindication of the way the regime has handled the crisis. Baghdad's strategy, urged on by Arab leaders fearful of the repercussions from war, has been to play along with the UN inspectors, hoping to drive a wedge between Washington and the rest of the Security Council. By not accounting fully for the weapons they had, and the whereabouts of materials for making them, the Iraqis have chosen against complete co-operation. But unless the inspectors can find something incriminating, Baghdad calculates, the US will lack full Security Council support for action.
The onset of summer will make fighting a war more daunting. Iraq will, no doubt, be happy to let American forces rotate through the Gulf, fuelling regional uncertainty and instability. The consequences of war could be far worse, but not having a resolution to the confrontation does not equal peace.
In neighbouring countries, other pressing agendas will come to the fore. In Turkey, an economic turnaround is urgently needed to cement the electoral success of the new government. In Iran, the confrontation between the proponents and opponents of political reform will heat up and could turn bloody.
In Saudi Arabia, the preoccupation will be how to fend off Washington's demands for an overhaul of education and new constraints on private donations to charities linked to al-Qa'ida. The Saudis may also be required to support a "road map" for Israeli-Palestinian peace – one which the Israeli government could use to pressure the Palestinians to halt violence and reform their leadership before Israel helps them.
The Israelis will argue that the danger posed by Iraq makes it impossible for them to reconfigure their regional relations. They depict the use of terror by the Palestinians as part of the broader terrorist threat on which the US has declared a global war. They could, therefore, hope to keep Washington's support in brooking no compromise with the Palestinian Authority.
Jordan also sets much store by the road map to peace that was shelved pending the Israeli elections. But Jordanians, along with Egyptians and Europeans, look to the US to deliver Israeli co-operation – and Washington's line has been that regime change in Baghdad and Palestine are prerequisites for making headway. Meanwhile, Washington also wants Middle Eastern governments to democratise, apparently in the name of reducing Islamic extremism.
Averting a war in Iraq will stave off certain death for many Iraqis and potential regional implosion. However, unless a new strategy emerges for tackling the region's other ills, the results will be destabilising uncertainty and death by attrition for many.
Dr Rosemary Hollis is the head of the Middle East programme at the Royal Institute of International Affairs
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