Despite President Bush's repeated bellicose statements about Iraq, many senior U.S. military officers contend that President Saddam Hussein poses no immediate threat and that the United States should continue its policy of containment rather than invade Iraq to force a change of leadership in Baghdad.
The conclusion, which is based in part on intelligence assessments of the state of Hussein's nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs and his missile delivery capabilities, is increasing tensions in the administration over Iraqi policy.
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The cautious approach -- held by some top generals and admirals in the military establishment, including members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff -- is shaping the administration's consideration of war plans for Iraq, which are being drafted at the direction of Bush and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.
The senior officers' position -- that the risks of dropping a successful containment policy for a more aggressive military campaign are so great that it would be unwise to do so -- was made clear in the course of several interviews with officials inside and outside the Pentagon.
High-level civilians in the White House and Pentagon vehemently disagree. They contend that Hussein is still acting aggressively, is intimidating his neighbors and is eager to pursue weapons of mass destruction and the means to deliver them.
These officials say time is not on the side of the United States. "The whole question is, how long do you wait with Saddam Hussein in possession of the capabilities he has and would like to have?" said Richard N. Perle, head of the Defense Policy Board, a Pentagon advisory group.
The uniformed military's skepticism would not stop Bush if he were determined to attack Iraq, a White House aide said. "I assume that if the president decides this is going to happen, they'll go along with it," he said.
But the military leadership's insistence on airing its concerns already appears to have had an effect. Despite the administration's public rhetoric about Iraq, the view of officials interviewed at the Pentagon in recent days is that there will be no action against Iraq before next spring, and perhaps not even then. They argue that the administration's goal of regime change may well be achieved by Hussein falling into poor health or perhaps by CIA covert operations aimed at toppling him.
By making their views known, the top brass also may bolster congressional Democrats who are counseling a more cautious approach on Iraq. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, has scheduled hearings beginning Wednesday on the administration's Iraq policy.
The military's objections also indicate that while the U.S. government is united about wanting Hussein out of power, it remains deeply divided about how to achieve that goal. The military's support of containment, and its concern about the possible negative consequences of attacking Iraq, are shared by senior officials at the State Department and the CIA, according to people familiar with interagency discussions.
One oddity of the containment policy is that the military at first was uneasy with its open-ended, indeterminate nature. But over the last decade, the military grew more comfortable with the policy of restraining Iraq through "no-fly" zones, naval enforcement of sanctions and the continuous presence of about 20,000 U.S. military personnel near Iraq's borders.
Senior officers believe the policy has been more effective than is generally recognized, officials said. As evidence, the top brass said the approach has deterred Hussein from threatening his neighbors and from backing terrorist organizations. They said it also has prevented him from updating his military equipment.
Also, while Iraq unquestionably possesses chemical and biological weapons, defense officials said the current U.S. intelligence assessment is that it has few, if any, operational long-range missiles that could be used to deliver those weapons to attack Israel or other U.S. allies in the region. U.S. intelligence has concluded that Iraq possesses perhaps as many as two dozen Scud "B" missiles -- with a range of 400 miles -- that it managed to hide from international inspectors, but that they are not assembled.
Officials said the officers contend that continuing a containment policy is preferable to invading an Iraq that possesses an arsenal of biological and chemical weapons. Another concern is that Iraq could split up under a U.S. attack, potentially leading to chaos and the creation of new anti-American regimes and terrorist sanctuaries in the region.