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Government checks off priorities for waging war

The pace is relentless now, on every front. America is marching through what amounts to a final checklist enabling it to strike at will once a decision to attack Iraq is made.

Altogether, the items checked off and still outstanding point to an assault that could start in as soon as a week, now that the United States and Britain have come up with an ultimatum for Iraq to comply with weapons inspections by March 17 or face war.

Militarily and diplomatically, this is the penultimate hour. But other pieces must fall into place, too, both large and small. President Bush has some persuading of the American people to do. More families of U.S. diplomats in the region must come home. Aid workers in Baghdad, the Iraqi capital, need time to get out of town.

What's been done and what needs to be done:

Military buildup

This item is checked, but there is a question mark as well. The armed forces are ready, though not as ready as they would like.

More than 200,000 soldiers, sailors and aviators are in place in the Persian Gulf region, bringing the force to assault strength and up from only 50,000 in early January.

One question hanging is whether the United States will persuade Turkey to allow its land to be used as a staging ground for more than 60,000 American soldiers opening a northern front against Iraq. A second unknown is whether the United States can use Turkish air space from aircraft carriers in the Mediterranean, the preferred route into Iraq.

So far the Turkish parliament has said no. The 4th Infantry Division remains at Fort Hood, Texas, perhaps a week or two away from being in place and ready to fight if Turkish approval should come.

"We've got contingencies in place should our troops not come through Turkey," Bush said. "That won't cause any more hardship for our troops; I'm confident of that." Still, Washington is applying pressure.

Martin Indyk, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, says: "We don't have a good alternative in northern Iraq to putting our troops on the ground via Turkey."


Unchecked, but close. "This is the last phase of diplomacy," Bush said of the coming week at the U.N. Security Council. "It's time for people to show their cards."

Without high expectations, the administration is pressing the case for more international support even while asserting it needs no outside approval. Britain, working with the United States, is trying to sell the council on the March 17 deadline for Iraqi weapons cooperation.

Although Washington appears unlikely to get a clear war authorization from the council this week, some foreign policy experts say the United Nations' role in Iraq's postwar reconstruction should be sorted out before any bombs drop.

"It is critical that at least there be the imprimatur of the United Nations over this operation to reassure people in the Middle East, the people of Iraq, the people of the rest of the world that this isn't intended to be simply a U.S. occupation," said Kenneth Pollack, former National Security Council and CIA specialist on Iraq.

Home front

Unchecked. Bush is expected to use a formal setting of some sort to let Americans know in no uncertain terms that war is ahead and to make his justifications clear one more time. Once an assault is under way, he would probably follow up with an Oval Office address.

Bush's evening news conference last week was meant to prime the country for the fight but deliberately lacked the sense of finality that aides expect him to convey.

James Steinberg, director of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution, said Bush must try to convince Americans that the war will ease, not intensify, the threat of terrorism. "People are really starting to freak out about this," he said.

Early warnings

Some checked, some not. Explicitly when possible, vaguely when necessary to maintain an element of surprise, the United States wants to give certain people time to get out of harm's way.

U.N. inspectors, humanitarian workers, journalists, Americans and other foreigners in Baghdad already know what could be coming and, based on the experience of past wars, some will get firmer word when that might be.

"Of course, we will give people a chance to leave," Bush said.

More than a week ago, the government authorized families of U.S. diplomatic personnel in a dozen Middle East posts to leave; about 600 have. Mandatory departures from front-line posts are likely to follow as war approaches.

Medical teams have been sent to all U.S. posts in the Middle East to brief Americans on the pros and cons of recommended smallpox vaccinations.

In another harbinger, Washington has asked some 60 countries to expel selected Iraqis who officials say are undercover agents possibly poised to attack American interests overseas.