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 Thursday, 16 January, 2003, 20:46 GMT
Analysis: Endgame or further delay?
US soldiers prepare to fly to the Gulf from Germany
The US continues its military build-up in the Gulf

By the end of January it should become clear whether we are in a countdown to war or whether the uncertainty will linger into February and March and even beyond.

Nearly four tons of VX nerve agents
Growth media for 20,000 litres of biological warfare agents
15,000 shells for use in biological warfare
6,000 chemical warfare bombs
Nuclear information
Most immediately, Dr Hans Blix and Dr Mohamed ElBaradei, the heads of the weapons and nuclear inspection teams, will go to Baghdad on 19 and 20 January.

They will urge the Iraqis to be more forthcoming and "pro-active" - especially about material unaccounted for when the inspectors left Iraq in 1998.

Then on 27 January, Dr Blix reports to the United Nations Security Council.

Marathon of meetings

That meeting will partly be in public and his report is expected to be published.

US President George W Bush
Iraq could decide on any given day to provide a biological or chemical weapon to a terrorist group or individual terrorists

US President George W Bush

In it he will give his assessment about the level of Iraqi compliance, whether he thinks Baghdad still has weapons of mass destruction and whether the inspection teams need more time to do their job.

If he does ask for more time, most members of the Council would give it to him. If the United States opposed an extension, the Council would be split.

On 28 January President Bush gives the annual State of the Union address to Congress, an obviously important platform for an exposition of the American position.

Mr Bush has not taken a decision to go to war. But he has given himself the military options to allow for a quick decision.

That speech will be followed on 29 January by a further and closed session of the Security Council at which the more considered views of the member states will be stated.

This could be a key meeting, since the Blix report will be in and will have been studied.

Then on 31 January, Mr Bush will hold talks at Camp David with the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair.

'Unanswered questions'

At any stage along this track, a "smoking gun" could be discovered in Iraq which would, under the terms of resolution 1441, trigger a new Security Council discussion and possibly a new resolution authorising war.

Rarely has such an international crisis been conducted with so many questions unanswered:

  • does Iraq really still have weapons of mass destruction? The US and the UK say yes but have provided no public proof.

    The latest report is that the weapons inspectors have found eleven chemical warheads though they were not filled. The exact significance of these remains to be determined.The inspectors have also found some illegal imports of machinery connected to rocket development.

  • Which way will the Bush administration jump? There still appear to be tensions between hawks and doves, with the hawks arguing that the inspections will get nowhere and that war is the only answer, and the doves saying that more time should certainly be allowed and UN authority should possibly be sought.

  • Will there be a second Security Council resolution? Resolution 1441 simply speaks about a further discussion if Iraq is found to be in breach. The US and UK want to keep their options for unilateral action open. And if there is no breach, there will be no second resolution.

  • Who would declare Iraq to be in breach? The US has in fact already accused Iraq of so being, for allegedly not being truthful in its weapons declaration. The US promised Britain that this was not enough to be a cause for war but Washington reserves the right to make its own assessment and will not give the Security Council the only say.

  • Would Britain join the US if the Washington decided to act alone? Mr Blair is trying to calm his government and party by saying that he "strongly favours" a second resolution. But he is not bound by that.

Siding with Bush

Those expecting a war in due course will have had their fears strengthened by the recent hardening of rhetoric by Tony Blair to bring him into line with George Bush.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair
Blair warns terrorists could get hold of nuclear weapons

Mr Blair has joined Mr Bush in warning about the potential links between "rogue states" and international terrorist groups.

President Bush has been talking about this for some time.

Back in October, he said in Cincinnati: "Iraq could decide on any given day to provide a biological or chemical weapon to a terrorist group or individual terrorists."

At a recent meeting of British diplomats in London, Mr Blair followed suit.

"I warn people: it is only a matter of time before terrorists get hold of it [nuclear capability].

"So when, as with Iraq, the international community through the UN makes a demand on a regime to disarm itself of WMD [weapons of mass destruction] and that regime refuses, that regime threatens us."

It is almost impossible for opponents to counter that argument since it is based on the unknown.

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See also:

16 Jan 03 | Middle East
16 Jan 03 | Middle East
15 Jan 03 | Middle East
16 Jan 03 | Politics
01 Oct 02 | Middle East
14 Jan 03 | Americas
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