The Pentagon is pressing ahead with preparations for a possible war with Iraq. But it is no longer clear whether an attack on Baghdad will begin this winter as many experts expect.
The U.S. military has been slowly moving personnel and equipment into the region around Iraq. Often for what are officially termed routine exercises, but clearly in anticipation of a possible presidential decision to invade.
Yet recent reports suggest the build-up of forces may be slowed, in part because of ongoing and time-consuming diplomatic efforts to draft a new U.N. resolution aimed at reviving weapons inspections in Iraq.
If such a resolution is approved and if Baghdad agrees to renewed inspections, any military action would be delayed. That could put an invasion beyond the winter months Pentagon planners favor for operational reasons, including the comfort of soldiers likely to wear bulky, hot suits to protect against chemical and biological weapons attack.
But top defense officials appeared untroubled. "The U.S. military remains capable of responding to the president whenever he asks that it respond for crisis prevention, for conflict, across the entire spectrum, whenever," asserts General Richard Myers, chairman of the military's Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The four-star Air Force general says delay is not a problem, even though he admits it would appear to give Baghdad more time to prepare its defenses.
"In a hypothetical situation, the longer you wait, obviously, an adversary has time to prepare, but so do you, to prepare for the consequences," he stressed. "I think we have a very strong military force. We have potentially great coalition partners and, as we said before, that will contribute in many different ways, and we will be ready for whatever whenever."
In the meantime, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has again stressed inaction does not appear to be an option when it comes to Iraq and the threat posed by its program to develop and deploy weapons of mass destruction: chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.
Mr. Rumsfeld likens the situation with Iraq to the crisis 40 years ago with Cuba and the Soviet Union's effort to deploy nuclear missiles within easy striking distance of the United States.
Mr. Rumsfeld says as the diplomacy continues, Baghdad has an opportunity to yield, just as the Soviet Union did four decades ago.
"Iraq is being offered an opportunity, just as the Soviet Union was, to make a set of decisions," said Secretary Rumsfeld. "I do not have any idea what set of decisions Iraq will make in the event that a U.N. resolution passes and/or fails, and they have to face a set of decisions as to what kind of inspections they will agree to. And time will tell."
But Mr. Rumsfeld appears to be holding out little hope for any dramatic change of course by Saddam Hussein. He says the Iraqi leader has had 11 years to change his way and all the diplomatic, economic and military pressures brought against Baghdad over that time has had little impact.