Analysts: Saddam a Target, But War Is Not Imminent

LONDON -- British Prime Minister Tony Blair's weekend talks with U.S. President George W. Bush tied Britain further into U.S. plans to tackle Iraq but have not triggered a countdown to military action, analysts said Monday.

Blair, Washington's staunchest ally in its war on terror, sent a strong signal Sunday that he would support United States-led action to topple the "detestable, brutal" government of Iraq's President Saddam Hussein.

He also said international efforts to tackle terrorism and the threat of weapons of mass destruction should "if necessary and justified ... involve regime change", edging British policy closer to Bush's stated aim of ousting Saddam.

But senior U.S. administration officials said after the two leaders met in Texas at the weekend that Bush, who has declared bluntly that "Saddam needs to go," had not yet decided to use military force.

They also conceded that mounting Israeli-Palestinian violence was complicating plans for tackling Saddam, who has refused to let United Nations weapons inspectors return to his country since they left in December 1998.

Analysts said the daunting military and diplomatic groundwork needed for a major strike against Saddam meant action would have been unlikely in the next six months -- even before Israel stoked outrage in the Arab world by sending troops into Palestinian cities in response to a wave of suicide bombings.

"[Military action] is being put back as we speak," said Toby Dodge of the Royal Institute of International Affairs. "I suspect it will not now take place before the turn of the year.

"If it hadn't been for the terrible situation in the occupied territories, this would have been the starting gun for military action," he said. "But even then we would have been looking at autumn."

Dodge said for the action against Saddam to be decisive, it would have to match the scale of the 1991 Persian Gulf War operation to expel Iraqi troops from Kuwait.

But the huge number of bombs and missiles unleashed on the Taliban and al-Qaida militant network in Afghanistan has left a shortfall in munitions that could take months to replenish.

And preparations for building up the necessary troop levels -- and winning the support or acquiescence of regional Gulf states -- was also a formidable challenge that needed time.

British officials, who fear any action against Saddam would be fraught with risk, insisted Monday that Blair's comments on Iraq were "nothing new" and denied he was endorsing the overthrow of Saddam.

"We share the view ... that Iraq and the world would be better off without Saddam Hussein but our policy objective is to get the weapons inspectors back in," Junior Foreign Office Minister Ben Bradshaw said.

The only way of getting those UN inspectors back to work is to make Saddam believe "that if he doesn't [let them back] then there will be some terrible alternative," Bradshaw said.

Dodge said Blair had showed there was still "light between the Washington and London positions" but had also committed himself more publicly and solidly to supporting Bush.