CAIRO – Among the roughly 500,000-strong members of the Iraqi diaspora scattered around the Middle East – and some are very sympathetic to Saddam Hussein – there’s a certitude that in the upcoming Desert Storm replay Baghdad could not hold out for more than a week. These Iraqis figure the US 3rd Infantry Division – currently training in a US military camp aka a country called Kuwait – could reach Baghdad in three days. The Bush administration mantra of the week is “time is running out.” Not as much for Iraq as for the UN weapons inspectors.

Does Iraq have an active nuclear program? No, and Mohamed ElBaradei, the International Atomic Energy Agency’s chief, practically said so at Monday’s great theater of the Security Council meeting, demanding a few months to prove it beyond any doubt. Will there be a smoking gun? No. Will there be a nonsmoking gun? Yes – and it may be what happened to stocks of poison gas and anthrax unaccounted for, or 30,000 warheads that Washington says Iraq still held as of the late 1990s.

Will there be war? Yes – as virtually all participants of the World Economic Forum in Davos have admitted. When? In February or March? No one at this point can tell. When will it be decided? Most probably on Friday at Camp David by George W. Bush and Tony Blair.

Hans Blix’s undoubtedly “grey” report was described by the Arab League as a kind of school report: Iraq is an average student at best, and it has to try harder. There have been anti-war demonstrations in Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, even Egypt. Paris, Berlin, Moscow and Cairo insist that the inspectors must be given enough time. But as far as Washington’s hawks are concerned, time is not running out: time’s up. The hawks know and say that Saddam’s regime has a huge attitude problem. The European Union may want it to cooperate “more pro-actively.” But this would be tantamount to changing the nature of Saddam’s regime itself.

The European position will be the key to any solution found inside the Security Council. It is an extremely nuanced position. The British – Tony Blair and his minions, not public opinion – remain unabashedly pro-hardline Washington. And Spain, Italy, Denmark and the Netherlands are extremely careful not to antagonize Washington. France and Germany defend a strictly peaceful UN-directed process, followed by Greece, Belgium, Luxembourg and Sweden. And then there’s more nuance: France and Germany are both anti-war. But while Germany is 100 percent pacifist, France will have to carefully consider the consequences of not engaging in an inevitable Anglo-American-led war.

Apparently there will be a compromise at the UN: The inspectors will be given some more time – but not enough. According to a Spanish diplomat, “The English managed to get a delay from the Americans when Jack Straw visited Washington.” The next key date is now February 15 – one day after a new report by the inspectors is presented to the Security Council. Even Ana Palacio, the Spanish Minister of Foreign Affairs, also impressed on Secretary of State Colin Powell the need for more time for the inspectors.

Spain entered the Security Council this January as a non-permanent member, with no veto power. It is fully aligned with Washington’s position: President Jose Maria Aznar talks to Bush practically on a daily basis. In the black-and-white (no greys) world of the Bush White House, Spain is right behind Great Britain and Poland in the “you’re with us” European camp. France and Germany are definitely in the “you’re not with us” camp. It’s no wonder that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld – a man baffled by the existence of nuances – branded France and Germany as “old Europe.” America loves NATO, not the European Union. America controls NATO, and simply cannot control the EU. So this ideal “new” Europe has to be represented by minor European powers like Spain under a conservative government; or – even better – by Poland, a former Soviet Union satellite. Eastern European countries like Poland see the European Union the way Washington hawks would like it to be: as simply a huge common market under the umbrella of NATO.

A new inspections report should be presented to the Security Council at the end of March. Washington as much as reduced this to ashes – but at the same time did not find enough allies to definitely cancel the inspectors’ mission, which has been going on for only two months now. So, according to European and Arab diplomats, the new “fake” key date of February 14 for a so-called routine briefing by Hans Blix to the Security Council is perfect as far as Washington’s military timetable is concerned. By then Washington should have been able to display enough ammunition to impress to the UN that Iraq is not cooperating as it must.

The feeling in Brussels, as well as Cairo, Beirut, Damascus or Amman, is pervasive: war cannot be avoided; but now it’s too late, too costly (a Yale study circulating in Davos was talking about US$125 billion) and too extremely unpopular for Washington to go to war without UN approval.

It’s no secret in the Arab world that CIA and Special Forces are already in Iraqi Kurdistan – a replay of the tactics employed in Afghanistan in 2001 when CIA and Special Forces were advising the Northern Alliance. The awesome American military machine will be almost ready by mid-February. On the diplomatic front, though, things are much more – well – nuanced. Until now, the Bush administration has not dared to launch a preemptive war based exclusively on its own judgment of a so-called threat to American interests. Washington hawks argue that the UN should be bypassed altogether because the Gulf War ceasefire in 1991 stipulated that Saddam should face obligations stated by the Security Council. So if he is not complying, there should be war. But the fact is, that the UN is the only body capable of certifying that Saddam’s regime has not passed the test.

From a military point of view, the US does not need anything from the co-called “coalition of the willing,” except the right to fly over a given country’s airspace and the right to use a few airbases – which will be in Kuwait, Qatar and Turkey. Kuwait and Qatar are in the bag, but Turkey could be a very complicated matter. Washington so far has offered US$4 billion to Turkey, which is peanuts compared to the negative fallout of a possible war. Turkey estimates it may have lost as much as US$50 billion because of the 1991 Gulf War.

As the world once again contemplates the spectacle of ultra-high-tech electronic jamming, the thousands of smart, or not so smart, bombs, and the likely thousands or dozens of thousands of collateral damage, Washington will definitely need the international community for the mopping-up business of post-Saddam. Powell himself put it succinctly; the US would like to internationalize the intervention as much as possible, because later “there will be too much work to do.” This is a basic tenet of the Bush doctrine: America bombs, and the rest of the world picks up the pieces.

So the Kosovo and Afghan models will be implemented again. According to new Washington plans, American forces and others from the “coalition of the willing” would remain in Iraq for one year or one year and a half, under a civilian authority designated by the UN. So the world should expect somebody like former French Doctors Without Borders member Bernard Kouchner in Kosovo, or former Algerian ambassador Lakhdar Brahimi in Afghanistan to fill this role.

Forget about the bunch of gangsters who pass for “Iraqi opposition groups.” Forget an Iraqi Hamid Karzai solution. According to diplomatic sources, Washington hawks also seem to be somehow convinced that General Tommy Franks is no MacArthur – and an American military occupation and government, puppet or not, of Iraq would generate a hardcore backlash in the Arab world. Anyway, it remains to be seen how the UN will be able to stretch its resources to manage a fractured country of 24 million people, as big as France, inevitably on the verge of civil war and certainly suffering a tremendous humanitarian crisis.

Washington hawks don’t need and certainly don’t want the UN to get inside Iraq. They may need the UN to get out. But who said they will want to get out?

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