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U.S. working behind the scenes

The Bush administration is initiating a series of diplomatic and military steps that must be completed before the United States could go to war in Iraq, American and allied officials have told the New York Times.

The tasks, some of which could take weeks or even months, include formalizing allies' roles in an offensive, discouraging neighboring countries from launching strikes against Iraq and deciding whether to seek U.N. support for an attack. Failure to accomplish many of these objectives could delay or complicate the onset of war.

The administration is moving urgently to accomplish its objectives, even before the start of the weapons inspections ordered by the United Nations. One goal is to create a credible threat of force, which might pressure Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to comply with the new resolution of the U.N. Security Council. Speedy action is also needed to be ready for combat in Iraq before hot weather sets in there next year.

U.S. officials have privately secured informal permission for basing and overflight rights from several Central Asian and Persian Gulf nations, including Kuwait and Qatar, but those commitments need to be formalized. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is expected to consult with allies this week at the NATO meeting in Prague, Czech Republic, on how they might fill in for U.S. forces in Europe that would be moved to the Gulf region.

The United States has stockpiled tanks and heavy equipment for more than 30,000 troops in several Gulf nations and on ships nearby. But additional equipment for Marine or Army divisions would take three to four weeks to reach the Gulf region from ports like Beaumont, Texas, or Savannah, Ga.

U.S. diplomats have intensified talks with two important allies, Turkey and Israel, to persuade them to remain on the sidelines during an invasion. Quietly, often through informal channels, Washington has broached discussions with Iran about preventing Iraq's Shia majority from seizing control of Baghdad or forming a separate state if Hussein falls.

If Hussein defies or obstructs weapons inspectors, the Bush administration will have to decide whether to seek approval from the Security Council for a military strike. Administration officials said President Bush would like council support, provided it can be obtained quickly. Diplomacy to lay the groundwork for winning that swift passage is in the most preliminary stages.

Senior military officials said the portion of a force of about 250,000 troops needed to begin the "rolling start" of an air, land and sea attack could be in place within 30 days of Bush's order. But the timing of an offensive hinges on the outcome of the weapons inspections.

The administration has begun laying the groundwork with dozens of countries for an attack. In a flurry of recent meetings and telephone calls, U.S. officials have asked for assistance from allies and antagonists, and received lists of demands in exchange for their cooperation. The talks are closely linked to troop deployments.

U.S. diplomats and senior military officials, including Gen. Tommy Franks, commander of American forces in the Persian Gulf area, have fanned out across Europe and Southwest Asia in recent weeks to discuss basing agreements for U.S. troops and aircraft and to determine which nations might contribute forces or equipment to an offensive to disarm Iraq.

Franks said recently that the United States had not made formal requests for assistance. But several countries have given private assurances to provide troops, equipment, bases, supplies and other support, officials said. Saudi Arabia, the most important Persian Gulf ally in the Persian Gulf War of 1991, has given conflicting signals on whether it would allow the allied militaries to use a major air operations center outside Riyadh or its spacious air bases.

Franks has set up an alternate command post in the Gulf state of Qatar, and other countries, from Kuwait to Oman, could pick up the slack if the Saudis proscribe allied forces.

"We'll have the access we need wherever we need it to do our job," said Gen. Charles Wald, a former head of American air forces in the Persian Gulf who is the new deputy commander of U.S. forces in Europe.

The United States has stockpiled hundreds of M1-A1 Abrams tanks, Bradley fighting vehicles and armored personnel carriers in the Persian Gulf region, particularly in Kuwait. The military also has been stockpiling precision-guided munitions in the area and lining up local contractors to supply troops.

And while tens of thousands of American air, land and sea forces are within striking distance of the Persian Gulf, an offensive and peacekeeping operation afterward would require tens of thousands more.

Logistical equipment _ tugboats, forklifts and other cargo handling equipment used to unload heavy gear _ is en route or ready to be sent, as are components for portable bridges the Army would use to ford rivers. Heavy equipment for Marine or Army divisions would go on sealift ships that take about a month to reach the Persian Gulf from U.S. ports in the Gulf of Mexico and on the East Coast. Troops would fly in to join their equipment.

B-2 bombers, which would play a pivotal role in targeting air defenses in the early hours of a campaign, would fly from bases in Britain and the British island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. The bombers' sensitive radar-evading skin requires the Air Force to erect portable hangars for the planes, which should be in place at the two overseas bases by next month.

"There's an enormous amount already in theater, and I'd say within 30 days of an order, we'd have a substantial tank and mechanized force in place," said Barry McCaffrey, a retired Army commander from the Persian Gulf War in 1991.

Finally, any military campaign would begin with a psychological campaign intended to turn Hussein's forces against him. Rumsfeld has approved the outlines of a plan that goes beyond traditional leaflet drops and broadcasts, a senior Defense Department official said.