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U.S. plan for Iraq may include ground invasion

The Bush administration, in developing a potential approach for toppling President Saddam Hussein of Iraq, is concentrating its attention on a major air campaign and ground invasion, with initial estimates contemplating the use of 70,000 to 250,000 troops.

The administration is turning to that approach after concluding that a coup in Iraq would be unlikely to succeed and that a proxy battle using local forces there would be insufficient to bring a change in power.

Without naming the officials, the New York Times reports that senior officials now acknowledge that any offensive would probably be delayed until early next year, allowing time to create the right military, economic and diplomatic conditions.

Until recently, the administration had contemplated a possible confrontation with Hussein this fall. Now that schedule seems less realistic.

Conflict in the Middle East has widened a rift within the administration over whether military action can be undertaken without inflaming Arab states and prompting anti-American violence throughout the region.

In his public speeches, President Bush still sounds as intent as ever about ousting Hussein, but he has not issued any order for the Pentagon to mobilize itsforces, and there is no official "war plan."

Instead, policymakers and operational commanders are trying to sketch out the broad outlines of the confrontation they expect.

Officials said the nascent plans for a heavy air campaign and land assault already included rough numbers of troops, ranging from a minimum of about 70,000 to 100,000 _ one Army corps or a reinforced corps _ to a top of 250,000 troops, which still would be only half the number used in the Gulf War.

Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and their senior aides contend that Arab leaders would publicly protest but secretly celebrate Hussein's downfall _ as long as the operation was decisive.

But some at the State Department and the White House said that efforts to topple Hussein would be viewed by Arabs as a confrontation with Islam, destabilizing the entire region and complicating the broader campaign against Osama bin Laden and his network, al-Qaida.

Senior administration, Pentagon and military officials say the consensus has emerged that there is little chance for a military coup to unseat Hussein from within, even with the United States exerting economic and military pressure and providing covert assistance.

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