In a week that began with anticipation around the UN inspectors' report and ended in great political theatre starring President George Bush and his applauding fans on Capitol Hill, the world edged a little closer to war. His jaw set and eyes narrowed, Bush declared in his State of the Union address: "The course of this nation does not depend on the decision of others. We will consult, but let there be no misunderstanding: if Saddam Hussein does not fully disarm, we will lead a coalition to disarm him. And we will prevail."
It was the final warning, the beginning of the endgame now in progress for months. Bush furnished a long list of Iraq's secret stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons, building quickly on the surprisingly negative report presented by Hans Blix, the chief UN weapons inspector, on January 27. Bush said Hussein had shown "utter contempt" for the United Nations, deceiving and stashing documents in private homes. Finally, he linked the "brutal dictator" to Al Qaeda, reminded the world that Hussein had used chemical weapons on his own people and described Iraqi torture techniques in graphic detail. "If this is not evil, then evil has no meaning," he concluded.
Bush's dramatic and often eloquent speech, filled with scare scenarios of terrorists unleashing vials of nerve gas, was long on rhetoric and short on specifics. He claimed that Hussein "aids and protects" Al Qaeda but more than a year after the 9/11 attacks, the sweeping investigation has not turned up any discernible link. According to Peter Bergen, a terrorism expert who wrote a book on Osama bin Laden, the links range between "tenuous and non-existent". The US state department's own report on global terrorism has little to say on the subject. When pressed, US officials claim Abu Zarqawi, said to be a senior Al Qaeda operative, received medical treatment in Iraq. When pressed further, US leaders talk of pre-emption—what if terrorists got hold of some of the stockpiles Iraq possesses?
Realising that he needed to build more of a case both at home and abroad, Bush announced that Secretary of State Colin Powell would provide additional intelligence information on February 5 to the UN Security Council. Sources say it could include electronic intercepts, satellite images and information from informers on the ground.
The US decision to provide more information to the Security Council bolstered the case of many who argue for more time for inspections. Russian foreign minister Igor Ivanov said it only proved that inspections must go on. Only three per cent of Russians support military action at this point, a thin line of defence for any politician. China, another veto-wielding power, is sitting quietly on the fence, making peremptory noises when required to. French President Jacques Chirac remains opposed to military action and his foreign minister is working hard to fashion a common European position against the US. Germany is determinedly pacifist, saying it will not support any resolution legitimising war.
But UN sources say that if push came to shove, France and Germany—derisively dismissed as "old Europe" by US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld—will join the American juggernaut in time. "France is grandstanding now but that will help down the line because it creates the domestic space for the French to either abstain or vote with the US. No one wants a rupture in the Security Council but they had to show they stood up to the hyper-power," says Lee Feinstein, fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations.
The lone voice of support comes from British premier Tony Blair who despite all the heckling at home has already committed 30,000 British troops to the Gulf. As anti-war protests spread from Cologne to San Francisco, Bush is trying to woo public opinion, contacting world leaders by phone and hosting them at the White House in rapid succession.Both Blair and his Italian counterpart Silvio Berlusconi were expected in Washington as was Saudi foreign minister Saud Al-Faisal, who was so worried after Bush's speech that he asked for an urgent meeting.
Diplomacy at the UN too was in full gear where Blix created a storm with his tougher-than-expected report on January 27. He pointedly did not ask for more time but underscored the value of continuing inspections. Summing up, he said, "Iraq appears not to have come to a genuine acceptance—not even today—of the disarmament which was demanded of it."
In contrast, Mohamed El Baradei, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, was less damning of Iraq's nuclear weapons programme and more critical of the US claims that aluminium tubes found by inspectors were meant for enriching uranium. He said the tubes were not suitable for centrifuges and appeared slated for making conventional rockets. "No prohibited nuclear activities have been identified during these inspections," he said. He asked for more time, saying "these few months would be a valuable investment in peace".
Bush, however, appears in no mood to grant "months" to the inspectors. Weeks seem more like it and nothing will happen until February 14 when Blix is scheduled to present the next report. The extra time fits in well with Pentagon's deployment schedule which is as yet only half-complete. By February-end, officials say, nearly 1,50,000 US troops and 800 aircraft would be in position around the Persian Gulf in various bases in Kuwait, Turkey and perhaps even Saudi Arabia. They will be supported by aircraft carriers, amphibious trucks and highly sophisticated weapons, including a new super-secret high-powered microwave weapon capable of burning computer systems by sending lightning bolts through concrete bunkers. The delay will also bring the moon in line with the US plans—the darkest nights are at the end of February as is the end of the Haj. Even the most insensitive of Bush's hawks are weary of attacking a Muslim country during Haj.
Against the increasingly loud drumbeats of war, Iraqi officials have tried hard to pick holes in the US-UK arguments, saying their cooperation has not only been good, but "super". Iraq is being asked to prove a negative—that it doesn't have weapons of mass destruction, a hard thing to do. Iraq's UN ambassador Mohammed Aldouri, fumbling and defensive, put on a brave front saying, "You can accuse us as much as you like, but you can't provide one piece of evidence."
Much to the chagrin of the Bush team, a somewhat similar message keeps coming from the American people who are in conflict over their President's rush to war. Even as he was delivering his annual speech to US lawmakers on Capitol Hill, hundreds of anti-war demonstrators were gathered outside in the biting cold to say there was an alternative to the Bush agenda. This was the third wave of protests after January 18 when nearly 4,00,000 Americans came to Washington in the biggest rally since the churning of Vietnam.
Jessica Mathews, president of the liberal Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, spoke for the disquiet many Americans feel when she said this war will be "seen in the region as an American war that will draw thousands of new recruits into the ranks of terrorist America-haters". The European public is equally worried about the prospect of more, not fewer, attacks after Bush is done delivering his brand of justice, an assessment shared by his own cia. But Bush and his war team do not want any "greys" in their black and white world.