The Pentagon's war plans are in readiness. Troops and equipment are ready to move into position. Now all eyes are on Baghdad, waiting for the outcome of U.N. weapons inspections. What will happen next?
It is a question that is on the mind of most senior Pentagon officials: what will happen if Saddam Hussein decides to defy the international community over the issue of weapons inspections?
Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz has suggested that while war could happen, and the United States is prepared for conflict, it is not inevitable. In a radio interview this week, Mr. Wolfowitz said he believes Saddam Hussein could be toppled by a popular uprising before any new global coalition has to move into Iraq.
"I do think that if it becomes evident to his own people that he is not going to be around for very long, there are very few people who want to be the last to die for Saddam Hussein. This is not a regime that has deep popular support of any kind and as soon as the people of Iraq no longer fear Saddam, he is going to have to fear them. I think that could happen potentially quite quickly," he said.
Still, military officials have to plan on the basis not of best-case scenarios, but the worst-case ones, including the likelihood that Saddam Hussein will survive and fight. If that happens, many believe the Iraqi leader will act differently than in the 1991 Gulf war, where many of his best troops were caught out in the open desert by coalition forces and quickly annihilated or captured.
This time, they suspect he will move troops and military equipment into Baghdad, the capital, and other major cities, trying to negate many of the tactical and technological edge enjoyed by U.S. forces when operating in open terrain.
Already, Pentagon sources say they have seen evidence of Iraqi troops and equipment being stationed in cities next to schools, hospitals and mosques. They say most of Iraq's elite military units are now grouped around Baghdad.
One Pentagon spokesman said Saddam Hussein undoubtedly hopes to benefit in one of two ways from a potential fight for Iraq's cities, either U.S. forces will be too scared to attack, even with precision-guided bombs, fearing civilian casualties. Or, the spokesman said, the Iraqi leader hopes U.S. forces will attack and face international condemnation if and when there are the inevitable civilian deaths.
News reports suggest the Pentagon hopes to avoid any direct battle for Baghdad or other crowded Iraqi cities in the initial phase of a new war, applying military pressure elsewhere in hopes the Iraqi army will collapse and Saddam Hussein will be toppled.
But U.S. Army officials make clear their soldiers are preparing to face the challenge of urban operations if called upon. Colonel Paul Melody is an expert on urban combat tactics at the Army's Infantry School. He admits fighting in cities will not be easy. "When you come into an urban terrain, the complexity of it, the density of it, the compressed nature of it makes operations inherently more difficult," Colonel Melody said.
Tens-of-thousands of Army soldiers have been undergoing special training in urban operations at a base in the southern state of Louisiana where mock urban combat environments have been built.
Major Perry Beissel is the officer in charge of the urban combat training program. He says the goal of the program is to make clear to individual soldiers that urban warfare is not easy, not a piece of cake as he puts it. He says it is just the opposite.
"Urban warfare is the hardest piece of cake they'll ever encounter," Major Beissel said.
The Army says the keys to success in any urban war will be locating so-called decisive points occupied by enemy forces, then isolating and destroying them, preferably with sustained precision gunfire, but man-to-man, hand-to-hand combat if necessary.
Getting intelligence information in advance about enemy positions will be critical, which is one reason why the Pentagon is reportedly considering placing native Iraqis, members of the country's exiled opposition, into U.S. units. They can act as interpreters as well as guides. Discussions are under way on final arrangements for training several thousand such Iraqis.