President Bush has not decided whether to attack Iraq, launching a new Gulf war to punish Baghdad for its failure to comply with U.N. disarmament resolutions. But a war of sorts is already under way.
Almost every day this month, U.S. aircraft have bombed Iraq, either with precision-guided munitions aimed at Baghdad's air defenses or with leaflets aimed at turning Iraqis, both military and civilian, against Saddam Hussein.
Other so-called psychological operations are also under way. These include radio broadcasts to the Iraqi people blaming Saddam Hussein for civilian suffering.
And there are computer e-mails and phone calls direct to top Iraqi commanders: some messages urging an overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Others warn them not to obey orders to use chemical or biological weapons if U.S. forces do attack.
In addition, small groups of elite American Special Forces and paramilitary units from the Central Intelligence Agency are reported working inside Iraq, seeking out potential targets and scouting possible landing zones for U.S. troops.
Steps like these serve two purposes, according to military analysts. First, they keep the pressure on Saddam Hussein in hopes he might comply with U.N. disarmament requirements or to drive him into exile or, possibly, to stir an internal revolt that could topple him.
Secondly, the air raids, secret penetration missions and psychological operations amount to battlefield preparations, paving the way for a full-scale military attack if President Bush does decide to resort to force.
That full-scale attack is likely to amount to a quick and massive air and ground assault, aimed at overwhelming Iraqi defenses and securing chemical or biological weapons to prevent deadly retaliation against U.S. troops or allies.
Some recent published reports have indicated such an all-out attack could come as early as early March, when there is minimal moonlight. There are more than 150,000 American military personnel in and around the Gulf and thousands more will have arrived by then.
Pentagon officials will not say how much more time Saddam Hussein has before facing a military attack. But in a recent interview, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Saddam Hussein's time has virtually run out after what Mr. Rumsfeld termed Iraq's "diddling" or toying with the United Nations for years.
Mr. Rumsfeld said, routinely, that he still hopes for a peaceful solution. But he also says that in his opinion, the only way to reach a peaceful solution is for countries to make clear they will use force if necessary.
Mr. Rumsfeld also said it is his belief that any delays in U.S. battlefield preparations will send a signal of uncertainty. And he maintains if there is no signal of resolve, then there is "no chance that Saddam Hussein will disarm voluntarily or flee his country."